note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Beverly Creasey
Reviewed by Beverly Creasey
Roosevelt's Federal Theatre Project is famous in retrospect for two reasons: First for Marc Blitzstein's leftist opera ("The Cradle Will Rock") which was shut down by the Feds and moved by Orson Welles and John Houseman to a non-government theatre to go on as advertised (with everyone, including the audience, marching the twenty blocks to the new venue.) The second notorious reason is Welles Voodoo "Macbeth" (set in Haiti) which was panned by critic Percy Hammond for casting Black actors in Shakespeare. (Rumor has it the cast worked a little voodoo backstage, too, because Hammond immediately caught pneumonia and died.)
Heady stuff, the clash of theater and politics. It's no wonder filmmakers like Tim Robbins and writers like Canada's premier playwright Jason Sherman want to revisit those times. Sherman's "It's All True" mixes Welles and Houseman's legendary rivalry with their down-to-the-wire search for a theatre for Blitzstein's "rock" opera (which actually sounds like a Kurt Weill songspiel). Sherman peppers the play with strange homosexual subtext (for Blitzstein) and a peculiar mother-fixation (for Welles) --- neither of which advance any action or has anything to do with the "Cradle" performance. What works is the hilarious rapid-fire dialogue for the two wonder-boys, and the sensational character of Howard Da Silva as their foil.
You may know Da Silva as Ben Franklin from the film version of "1776" but his larger claim to fame is his refusal to buckle in front of the House UNamerican Activities Committee, and his subsequent blacklisting for not naming names. Director Spiro Veloudos has mined the motherlode by casting Neil Casey as the fractious Da Silva. The stage sizzles when Casey storms in to mix it up with Welles and Houseman. You can even tolerate the "method" Da Silva and Welles employ to get a stymied actress into character. It's just plain fun to see Casey smolder and catch fire.
Geoffrey P. Burns as the pontificating Welles, Christopher Chew as the charismatic Blitzstein and Robert Saoud as the pompous Houseman get some nifty stagetime --- and Jennifer Valentine and Julie Jirousek are solid in multiple roles --- but the playwright manages, alas, to make what actually happened seem less significant than it was. But what a treat to watch Casey et al tear up the stage in search of the truth.