Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Dancing at the Revolution"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Larry Stark


"Dancing at the Revolution"

by Michael Bettencourt
Directed by Donald Sheehan

Musical Director Christine Pardilla
Set Design by Gino Ng
Lighting Design by Thomas Callahan
Sound Design by Doc Madison
Costume Design by Lisa "Roz" Risley
Props Master Ritta Bellardi
Tech Adm Doc Madison
Master Carpenter Karen Kivisto
Master Electrician Danielle Brennan
Building Crew Ian Vogel
Graphic Design Nathan Pyritz
Stage Manager Alicia Gregoire

Emma Goldman.......................Lesley Chapman
Alexander Berkman.....................Fred Robbins
Hannah/Ensemble........................Gwen Larsen
Dope Fiend/Ensemble.................Sharan Hunte
Minny Eddy/Ensemble.................Sophia Miles
Evelyn L'Ariat/Ensemble.............Kay Moriarty
Addie/Ensemble.........................Kali R. Walker
Kate Richards O'Hare/Ensemble.....Liz Robbins
Indian Alice/ Ensemble............Christine Pardilla
Prison Matron/Ensemble................Angela Rose
Content/Ensemble................G. Zachariah White
Judge/Ensemble..........................Michael Miller

When it comes at last down to trying to tell anyone who hasn't seen the Theatre Cooperative's production of Michael Bettencourt's "Dancing at The Revolution" --- in those few succinct words of lead-paragraph so precious to reviewers and editors --- "what the play's about" exactly, the task feels like trying to peel an onion. Of course it's "about" Red-Emma Goldman ("The Most Dangerous Woman in America"), her treason-trial for lecturing against the draft at the start of World War One, and the harrowing inhumanities she discovered during her two years inside the American prison system. Since the play has her trying to make the autobiography she was writing at 62 clearly comprehensible to her 20-year-old French office-manager (and, of course, to the audience) that's what it's "about" right? Yet that structure feels as transparent as the thin cables that set designer Gino Ng uses to make a jail at the end of the first act --- a straight, solid square of bars so slender and so widely-spaced actors walk easily through it. So the play is "about" its central theatrical metaphor for the indomitable humanity of Goldman's mind inside the social constrictions that never could hold anything but her body, right? Or is that just the first, pungent white layer under the dry red skin of facts? (Notice how "succinct" this lead-paragraph becomes trying to get at what a couple hours of play is "about"!)

Of course, under the factual "story" is the structure this playwright uses to tell it. This is a play that squirms around in several directions, in four of what a composer would call Movements: the first and last are dialogues between the disorganized vesuvius of Emma (Lesley Chapman) and her unhappily dutiful young secretary Hannah (Gwen Larsen). In their first movement their argument is about Emma's disorganized book and whether or not it could explain her disorganised life --- technically, a movement that introduces the people the ideas. It resolves itself when Emma insists they sit down and she will try to tell the story to this young, repressed, sceptical editor.

The next movement opens into a telling of the lecture and the trial. Suddenly it becomes apparent why nine Ensemble-members started the play sitting, in non-descript identical costumes, all through the audience surrounding the stage. They become the enthusiastic audience at the lecture and then, with a wisp of costume for each, they plunge headlong into a satirical send-up of the incredible treason-trial, with Goldman and her Significant Other (Fred Robbins) --- a grizzled old professional socialist --- winning every battle and (wonder of wonders) losing the war. This is a neo-Brechtian satire in which the positions and the quotes prove how many decades the two defendants were ahead of their oppressors. But the movement and the first act end in conviction and incarceration, as the spiderlike wires above the stage descend to make a prison.

The prison-movement becomes a brooding, intense series of dialogues wherein six uniquely human women document the horrid sexist inhumanity of their lives before and inside prison, with Emma, focused and respectful, mostly listening. And of course, since her task here is to understand, as she learns the audience learns.

The final movement returns to the editorial dialogue --- fight, actually --- eventually over whether Emma Goldman was a uniquely gifted intellectual powerhouse born into a century only she had the stamina to fight in order to become a unique paragon of personal freedom. It's here that Goldman's one-on-one intense caring about individuals is demonstrated. Hannah's complaint is that her father insists she must marry a nice, blah butcher and she can do nothing but conform. This becomes a deadly earnest Zen battle in which the teaching roshi argues, insults, cajoles, massages, screams --- all to force her student to the realization that she is, already, free to be whatever self she chooses, if only she will choose.

But that is all form. In each movement Michael Bettencourt throws into his mix a scintillating variety of theatrical techniques. The applauding shills in the lecture scene lead the audience to applaud and approve the simple truths Goldman and Berkman are saying, as neatly as that technique worked in Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty". The trial is as full of exaggerated physical bombast as any Abbott & Costello routine. The prison sequence is punctuated by tenderly choral singing of moving folk hymns that have no relation to the story --- except that their emotional resonance works. The personal monologues in the prison movement are yearningly expressive, but they are made all the more vivid by the unflinchingly intense concentration with which Emma listens. When Hannah and Emma grapple about freedom, the playwright physicalizes their battle in a shiatsu-massage in which Emma says she is looking for (and finally finding) the Freedom pressure-point. None of these techniques would exist in the same well-made play --- so in a sense the very chaos of technique here is a perfect expression of Goldman's passionate intellectual disarray.

But the steel bolt that holds this chaos together is Emma Goldman herself. She is continually, wittily self-critical, but unflinchingly herself. The apparent chaos of her life stems from her two eternal distractions --- her passionate caring about both the society in which she lives, and each precious individual who lives in it with her. She demands honesty from each so as to benefit the other, and understands early that she cannot reform the whole without reforming every single member. It is her uncompromising insisting on truth from everyone that makes her, personally as well as publicly, "The Most Dangerous Woman in America".

Yet I have still not told you what it's "about" because a play isn't lines and stage-directions and ideas and techniques --- it becomes a play only in performance. This production is lucky in attracting a dozen eagerly committed performers who toss themselves about the central stage and in and out of characters with a joyous physical abandon that is infectious. Before the play starts they take reserved-seats scattered throughout the audience and chat --- not "in-character" or with any false camaraderie, but spontaneously and openly with any friends who might happen by. And that freedom to be themselves emerges, at long last, as the true message of the play.

But there are first the three major protagonists. Fred Robbins (Berkman), hobbling on a broken foot with a cane that can become a rapier, haranguing and brawling, is the grizzled old professional revolutionary, eloquent at infighting. Lesley Chapman (Goldman) is the sharp-tongued pricker of everyone's pretensions, always the first to prick her own, impatient with the world, her friends, herself. Gwen Larsen (Hannah) is the swing-figure, the block of obstinacy Chapman carves into a free new self. (I thought her French till she abandoned that accent to become for a time a prison inmate.) Only these three wear Riz Risley's individual, roughly realistic costumes, because they maintain specific character throughout the play.

The rest wear the indistinguishable white top/black pants of the Ensemble, the shapeless gray smocks of prisoners --- except when whipping into the eyeglasses of an expert witness, the wig of a judge, the whip of a factory foreman, the hat of a cop, the suit-coat of a prosecutor. But each smock bears a stencilled name, and as Thomas Callahan's careful lights call each individual out of the prison gloom each blossoms forth as an individual.

Sharah Hunte (Dope Fiend) and Kali R. Walker (Addie) are the two Blacks marvelling that a White would want to listen to anything they'd say, and only grudgingly accepting a warm handshake. Liz Robbins (Kate) is a fellow revolutionary paying for her efforts to reform prison from the inside. Christine Pardilla (Indian Alice) --- who added her sharply moving musical direction to this mix --- is near death from the syphilis an Alaskan miner gave her raping her repeatedly until she killed him. Kay Moriarty (Evelyn) is a proud prostitute jailed and then branded for her attempt to set up her own business without a pimp. And Sophia Milas (Minny Eddy) is a bewildered incompetent dead in solitary because she cannot make quota in the prison factory and the doctor's called too late.

But any society generates its heroines with villains. Angela Rose is a Prison Matron punishing prisoners to earn privileges. Michael Miller is a blindered Judge and a profiteer. G. Zachariah White is a factory Forman with a license to break wills by breaking bodies. Director Donald Sheehan's hand here, keeping the "good guys" and "bad guys" printed on the same people, maintaining a fluidity, directing attention to broad or pinpoint details, is as obvious yet invisible here as it was for Pinter's "Old Times" for this same company.

And now, as yet another layer of my onion, "Dancing at The Revolution" is indeed "about" this company The Theatre Cooperative, and about the community it serves. Lesley Chapman is their artistic director and an unashamed devotee of Emma Goldman. I'm sure she took great delight in choosing Michael Bettencourt's big, powerful play about her hero for many of the same reasons she works in what Goldman herself would have recognized as a "settlement house" in Somerville, bringing plays of social importance to a loyal local community as well as to the wider world of Boston theater lovers. The Cooperative continues to have familiar names and familiar faces come back again and again --- as the makers and as the audience who must join every night to create theater.

But, finally, this show is also about Boston.
Michael Bettencourt had to free himself from Boston in order to seek his potential. He found this city too indifferent, too niggardly, too critically un-empathetic, too uninvolved for his writing to flourish and grow. His soul, like Emma Goldman's, is huge and committed to changing society by doing the work you're best fitted for. His grasp of theatricality for each one of his major plays is ground-breaking and unique, but those plays demand a scope of talent and a depth of commitment, financial as well as artistic, that he could not find in this city. The Theatre Cooperative has pushed his play through realities of budget that force their reach to exceed their grasp. And so, like Emma Goldman's life and work, "Dancing at The Revolution" is a hint, a tempestuous, fascinating, shatteringly moving attempt at fulfilling the play's full potential. Emma I think would have approved. But she would, of course, never be satisfied.
For her there was always more work to be done.

Love,
===Anon.


"Dancing at the Revolution" (30 November - 22 December)
THEATRE COOPERATIVE
277 Broadway, SOMERVILLE, MA
1 (617) 265-1300


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