Saturday, November 22, 2014

Two Political Dramas in One New York Weekend (Theatre - The Death of Klinghoffer & Sticks and Bones)

Some question the relevance of live theatrical performance in the age of Tivo and live streaming, but you wouldn't if you had seen two productions we attended, one off-Broadway and the other at the Metropolitan Opera.  The New Group's production of David Rabe's 1971 Sticks and Bones is a still-fresh indictment of American hypocrisy, while the 1991 The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams and Alice Goodman, although an over-literal production fails to ignite the material, is still resonant, especially in its having been mounted against the fear (unfounded) that its content would be incendiary fodder for anti-Semites.

First the opera.  It is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinians.  The American, British and Jewish passengers are taken hostage, and a wheelchair-bound Jewish man is murdered.  The ship's captain, rather than reporting the killing and trading lives for demands, reports to the authorities that nothing has occurred, forestalling escalation and letting the hijackers go free. It's a tactical decision, not a referendum on the value of a man's life.  One could say that the captain chose not to value Klinghoffer's life more than that of any other passenger.  As played by Paulo Szot, it was not a choice the captain took lightly.  Of course, that doesn't make it any more tolerable for Klinghoffer's loved ones.

Goodman and Adams's couldn't be more clear in not taking political sides than in the opera's prologue.  Featuring first a chorus of Palestinians and then Israelis, each states their grievances against their historical treatment and hopes for their future.  In one of his best theatrical ideas in the production, director Tom Morris, uses the same performers for both choruses, having them change their costumes before us on stage.  Clear enough for you?  The rest of the opera imagines what events must have been like on the ship, knowing what we know about the event from survivors - a docu-opera, but one which imagines the inner lives of the characters in the context of the complex feelings that have driven Middle Eastern politics at least since the Balfour Declaration was foisted upon the region by the British in 1917.

The book and score of The Death of Klinghoffer employ modern literary and musical language which the safe, explanatory production failed to give corporeal form.  Events on the ship are framed by the prologue, as well as by a conference during which survivors remember what happened.  The scenario is episodic, with the three timelines superimposed over each other.  Events on the ship are not depicted linearly.  The moment of Klinghoffer's murder by the youngest terrorist (played ably by  dancer Jesse Kovarsky), for example,is first shown with the killer in the foreground, his conflictedness expressed in a writhing, acrobatic choreography as a contralto voiced the anger that drives him to action in a melodically angular aria.  Then the captain and Klinghoffer's wife Marilyn are brought into the foreground, with the dancer in the background, as the events leading up to the murder are repeated from a different viewpoint.

The prologue was staged with a group of Palestinians in the desert, scenes of protests with green flags waving, and finally a line of people marching diagonally across the stage in anger, the women in robes and headscarves. This last motif is repeated through the opera, the diagonal line cutting through the action while events unfold on the ship.  The Israelis arrive in the Middle East as refugees, each with a trunk of belongings and trees to plant, to cultivate their new desert home.  The meeting of survivors that begins the opera was awkwardly imagined, with the ship's captain and passengers taking turns speaking at a lectern, but when characters spoke for any length of time, they moved away from the lectern and began performing for the audience. Secondary characters were realized as broad 1970s stereotypes rather than as detailed human characters, the language of parody distancing us from the humanity of the story, but never enough to make intelligent commentary on it.  These choices seemed only to display mistrust in the material; a fear that it might be inherently uninteresting. 

The simultaneity of dramatic lines is demanded by the score, but the literalness of location hamstrung the production, interrupting the fluid play of the three timelines.  For the survivor's meeting, the director might have chosen either to more completely abstract these scenes - simply the artists on the stage with the audience may have been enough.  Or the act of narration could have been fully embraced in all its messiness, using table and microphones or something else that created real obstacles for the performers.  The characters remembering and sharing the story is the action in the text that permits the audience to hear the narrative.  It is not an impediment to the drama to be quickly dispensed with.  As a constant in the score, it should be a constant in the stage elements.  In addition, had the actors been asked to embody the complexity of being both characters in the story and narrators of it, inhabiting this paradox would have added to the humanity of their characterizations.  This sort of sophistication was continually eschewed by the production, as though it would have been too difficult for Met artists or audiences.

Time and again, this production felt like one mounted in fear, but less of political backlash than of the conventionality of its audience.  At no time was this more apparent than in an Act II scene during which a passenger, one of a troupe of dancers, remembered her experience.  The superficiality of the approach to this scene offered an interlude neither of beauty nor humor.  It squandered the dramatic tension, going instead for made-for-television cuteness, evoking something that smelled quaintly of The Poseidon Adventure, trivializing the story.

In general, the writing paled in comparison to Adams's Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic.  Despite eloquent moments for Klinghoffer and his wife, nothing approached the stark beauty of Nixon and Mao Zedong's toasts, Madame Mao's supple coloratura acrobatics, or the setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, Batter my heart, three person'd God... a voicing of Robert Oppenheimer's conscience, a true lyrical showstopper of an aria.

Alan Opie's intelligent performance afforded dignity to his aria and Marilyn Klinhoffer's final scene was nicely sung by Michaela Martens's, if a little overly sentimental, this was consistent with the dramatic choices embraced by this production.  But really, this was an evening of entertainment.  It was   about as incendiary as a toothpick. If you wanted fire enough, yes, a toothpick might burn, but only for a second. The protesters wouldn't have wasted their breath had they actually seen the production, but thank goodness for their ignorance, because it made an evening of entertainment into the political theatre it deserved to be.

I had fogotten what an intense and surprising play David Rabe's 1971 Sticks and Bones is.  In this production by The New Group's Scott Elliott, it is given simultaneous psychedelic poetry and visceral reality. David, a veteran of the Vietnam War, returns to his perfect, apple pie-American family a blind, angry man.  So ill-prepared are his parents (Ozzie and Harriet, no really) and his guitar-playing brother Rick for this imperfect ending to their TV war, that they go to extraordinary lengths not to absorb it.  Here, the falseness of 1960-70s television are the purposeful means of expressing America's denial of the consequences of the war we waged in Southeast Asia.

David (a sinister but vulnerable Ben Schnetzer) may not see his external world any more, but he is accompanied by an internal vision of Zung (Nadia Gan), a Vietnamese woman he met and loved during the war.  Since the Vietnamese represent only Communists and non-Communists in the Cold War era, her humanity is invisible to David's family, but it is the druggy poetry of the play that makes her quite visible to the audience. The aw gee hokiness of the cliches work here because they are self-aware devices with broad cultural recognition and also because, just beneath the surface of Holly Hunter's Harriet and Bill Pullman's Ozzie, run roiling rivers of anxiety, rage, and desire that these champion actors give believable and humane expression .  The outrage for David's parents is not so much that their son can't see, but that he has loved one of "them" and he has dared to return without his all-American optimism.  Rabe's drama is floridly imaginative and masterfully angry.  If Rudolph Giuliani had wanted something to flex his repressive muscles at, he could have saved his breath about The Death of Klinghoffer and protested The New Group's livid and damning production of Sticks and Bones, some real political theatre.     


Thomas Hogglestock said...

I am envious you got to see Klinghoffer, and apparently Nixon in China. I'm a particular fan of Nixon and only recently acquainted myself with Klinghoffer. But haven't seen either.

Ted said...

Hi Thomas - We're doing a surprising amount of opera going this season! Also saw Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which I will write about soon. And we saw the new Nozze last eve. Since a friend was in it, I'm not going to write about it. I particularly love the Nixon score too and that stupendous baritone aria that closes Act I of Dr. Atomic.