25 March 2011

“As It Is in 'Heaven'”

[In 1992, I was approached by Drama Review editor Richard Schechner, who was planning a series of articles on experimental theater companies that had begun in the 1960s and ‘70s and were still producing. At the time, I was working a little as a freelance dramaturg with Leonardo Shapiro’s Shaliko Company (which I’ve mentioned many times on ROT), having met Leo and seen the company’s work at the Theatre of Nations international theater festival in Baltimore in 1986. Since I’d written for TDR before, Richard and Leo agreed that I might be the person to do the profile of The Shaliko Company for the planned series. (I don’t believe the series actually materialized in the end. "Shapiro and Shaliko: Techniques of Testimony," however, was published in the Winter 1993 issue of TDR.)

[For the better part of a year, I shadowed Leo, interviewing him and his colleagues, friends, critics, and employers; attending rehearsals for the various productions he was directing; observing classes for his Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program; combing through the company’s files and records; and generally gathering everything I could on Shaliko and Leo that might be pertinent. The Shaliko Company’s main project during that time was the production at Theatre for the New City of Karen Malpede’s Blue Heaven, 17 September-11 October 1992, and I attended most of the rehearsals starting on 10 August. Shortly before opening, Leo, Karen, and I decided to try to get a little early publicity by submitting an article on the work-in-progress to the Village Voice, and I set out to write it, a description of the work-in-progress. The result was published as "As It Is in Heaven" on 22 September 1992.

[In a recent ROT article, I wrote about the controversy of reviewing plays in previews and I cited Linda Winer’s Newsday column of 25 December 2010 on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as an example of a good way to split the difference between an actual review of an unfinished production and covering only the news of accidents, injuries, safety measures, and production costs. I also mentioned in passing that I’d done something similar myself when I wrote the article on Blue Heaven, so instead of republishing Winer’s article, I’m republishing my own.]

* * * *

A young man strolls into a cafe and sits at the table of a woman kneading clay. Two musicians wait silently on the bandstand. “Lend me a dollar fifty,” says the man. “I want some scrambled eggs.” Not looking up from her clay, she scolds him for eating “things that clog you up.” They’re only a few feet from my table, and I hear the whole exchange. Even so, a woman with a video camera broadcasts it onto a TV across the room. The man, whose name is John, goes to the bandstand and plays a bluesy riff on the piano, picking up the rhythm of the cook’s slow chop-chop-pause from the kitchen. John has AIDS but the artist, Aria, warns him that AZT “ruins your liver.” “Honey, I found delicious ways to ruin my liver,” John replies. He doesn’t speak the words, though—he sings them.

What kind of cafe is this? No, it’s not Cop Rock returned to haunt us. I’ve been watching rehearsals of Blue Heaven, Karen Malpede’s new play under construction, like the Heaven Cafe, at Theater for the New City. Halfway through rehearsals, it’s quite different from what I pictured from Malpede’s script. Under the direction of Leonardo Shapiro, founder of The Shaliko Company which is co-producing the play, this environmental production where the spectators sit amidst the action in the cafe (which opens a half hour before performances for drinks and snacks) is becoming a sort of live-action, low-tech virtual reality experience.

Later in the scene, Jill (Christen Clifford), a teenage junkie who’s lost a leg, and Dee (Sheila Dabney), her older companion, have joined other regulars at the Heaven. Aria (Rosalie Triana) has just read the newspaper account of the death of another artist who was her lover’s wife. Names are never used, though the videographer will shoot the headline, but you’re expected to recognize Ana Mendieta who fell or was thrown from the apartment she shared with her husband, Carl Andre, in 1985. “Did you know her?” asks John (Nicky Paraiso). There is a long pause as the jazz duo starts playing; Aria answers, a sharp sob over her body mike: “No.” Suddenly, Dee and John, circulating among the tables, begin detailing Mendieta’s art while Jill offers personal commentary on it. They taunt Aria with suspicions about her lover, whose art and character Sada (Lee Nagrin), Buddha-like owner of the Heaven Cafe in her booth, extols through the speakers. The characters appear on the TV monitor as they speak. The dialogue is rhythmic; accompanied by Gretchen Langheld’s sax-and-guitar composition, it becomes a jazz oratorio. It builds to a nearly intolerable tension until Jill asks the question that began the stichomythia: “Did you know her?” Aria’s amplified anguished murmur briefly halts the build: “No.” It starts again, but this time I watch Aria’s stony-faced reaction on the monitor.

Blue Heaven isn’t just a stylized slice of urban life or, like Song of Singapore, merely a reconstructed cafe. Set on the eve of 1991’s Persian Gulf war, several things in particular distinguish it—two that intrigue me most. First is Malpede’s poetic distillation of our world. “All of us experienced the war,” Malpede points out, “and most of us also experienced the death of Ana Mendieta. These are two contemporary historical events that are part of our lives.” True, but more immediately, her characters’ daily efforts just to carry on are totally familiar to me. If I don’t actually know these people, I’ve encountered them over and over again in my neighborhood and in places like the Heaven Cafe.

The second allure is the immersion in the action—being not only in the cafe, but in communion with the performers. “That’s why people go to cafes,” Shapiro tells me; “they want community.” He’s instructed his cast, who perform as actual presences not just fictional characters, to “cross-document our lives with the characters’ lives, . . . our voices with theirs,” so they speak of themselves through the dialogue. “Elements of this play remind me of The Brig,” remarks George Bartenieff who plays Herbie, the cook. TNC’s co-founder compares the “intensity and emotional demands” he felt in that 1963 Living Theatre production with Blue Heaven’s: “It’s like living the experience, not just pretending.” My closest theatre adventure to what I project this will be was Jim Cartwright’s Road when I paid a visit to a block in an English rust-belt town and was given a resident’s-eye-view of its reality. But Road was about Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, while Blue Heaven is about my own America. Also, Shapiro insists, “The play is about what happened last year. The production is about what’s happening now.” As he sees it, we’re all in it together.

Another difference from Road: Blue Heaven isn’t all unrelenting naturalism and illusionistic acting. Intermixed with realism are moments of broad theatricality: aside from the sung dialogue, video broadcasts and amplified voices, there will be scenes behind a scrim or with film and numerous effects, tricks and gags. Much of this hasn’t been introduced yet, but I’ve seen some of the masks, wigs and funny faces—there is considerable humor in Blue Heaven—and I’ve heard what Shapiro has asked his technical director for. Besides, there is the war in act two.

Theater for the New City is at 155 First Avenue at 10th Street and tickets for Blue Heaven will be $10, with drinks and food extra. Performances are at 8 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, September 10 through October 11; call (212) 254-1109 for reservations. Displayed for sale in TNC’s lobby will be original art commensurate with the downtown nature of the Heaven Cafe.

[Blue Heaven ran into internal difficulties which aren’t relevant here, and it didn’t get good reviews when it opened. Playwright Malpede, whom I’d interviewed before rehearsals began ("An Interview with Karen Malpede," Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 8.1 [1993], reprinted as "Karen Malpede" in Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights [Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996]), as well as during the work as part of my research for the TDR article, retitled the play Going to Iraq, which is what she’d called it before the Shaliko-TNC production. I don’t believe the play’s been published under either title, Blue Heaven or Going to Iraq; I’m also not aware of any other productions other than the TNC staging, except a reading over WBAI radio in March 1992.]

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