27 October 2011

'The Speaker’s Progress' (BAM)

When my friend Diana and I selected two shows in the Brooklyn Academy’s Next Wave Festival this fall, we chose two that overlapped and we ended up going to BAM two nights in a row. It’s not that that’s a lot of theater, or even a lot of traveling to Brooklyn, but it’s hard to write reports back to back and say anything cogent. I’ve just posted my attempt to describe the Berliner Ensemble’s production of The Threepenny Opera directed by Robert Wilson (published on 22 October), and then I immediately started on this unusual performance, Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Speaker’s Progress. A short play (in Arabic and English with English supertitles), it lasted only 90 minutes—but there’s much to sort out and a lot to say, if I can get it down.

Diana and I saw The Speaker’s Progress at the Harvey Theatre on Friday, 7 October. Neither of us had much idea what to expect from the intriguing blurb in the BAM catalogue for the fall portion of this season’s Next Wave Festival: “a story of censorship, sexism, and insurrection inspired by the revolutionary spirit pervading the Arab world.” Admittedly, we don’t get a lot of Arab or Middle-Eastern theater here, not in comparison with the European, Latin American, or even African performances we get to see fairly frequently. I was enticed by the prospect of seeing a play from that part of the world, hearing those voices directly rather than filtered through the Western media or spun by politicians and spokespeople whose jobs are more often to obfuscate than to clarify or inform. “There are so many prejudices and so many ready-made formulas to identify that Arab world and identify that gulf world that are negative preconceptions and that are negative prejudices,” Al-Bassam, 39, has said. “And equally, on the other side, on our side, the same kind of reasoning through prejudice exists and fuels disaster, in fact, you know, and this kind of theater work is our way of trying to engage with that.”

I’ll assume that few readers will have heard of Al-Bassam or his company, SABAB, before now. (It turned out I had, but I didn’t recognize that I had until later.) Born in Kuwait in 1972, the playwright (who also directed the production and plays a pivotal role in it) started his troupe, then named the Zaoum Theatre, in London in 1996 after attending university in Edinburgh. After he returned to Kuwait, Al-Bassam, who writes in both Arabic and English, started what he styles the “Arabic arm” of the company, SABAB, in 2002. (According to the company’s website, sabab is an Arabic verb that mean “to cause, bring forth, provoke, trigger, arouse, inspire, prompt” and a noun meaning “reason, cause, motive.” I’ve wondered why it’s written all in caps, and though I haven’t found an explanation, I can’t avoid the fact that the playwright’s initials are “SAB” and the company is also known as the Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre. I was unable to learn to what zaoum refers.) The company is international and pan-Arab, with members coming from Europe, Australia, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Kuwait. The playwright has said he felt that because of the changes in the Gulf region, from the great oil revenues through the introduction of modern infrastructure to the rise of modern education, the Gulf societies had “been ripped out of the past very fast.” That, of course, was nine years before the current upheavals, known as “the Arab Spring,” that have rocked the Arab world. Those changes, we know, haven’t always been liberal nor have they all been greeted with equal appreciation by all parts of the society. Increased wealth has also brought millions of guest workers and immigrants from poorer Arab countries and they now make up a majority of Kuwait’s population. A parliament shares power with the hereditary emir, but the Al-Sabah family appoints many of its members. The consumer society has generated a culture that includes Western style cafés, restaurants, and shopping malls, but the country still maintains a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol and a resurgence of strict Islamic practices has arisen. The modern education Al-Bassam applauded is dispensed in a national university system that separates male students from female in classes and on campus. “We’re in a crash scenario, time and culture,” said Al-Bassam. “Culture, society, globalization, all of that coming together and reactions to that, you know, sometimes violent reactions.”

I’d have guessed that SABAB would have had difficulty performing political satire in Kuwait, even be unsanctioned there: criticism of the emir, for instance, is forbidden and punishable by law. But Al-Bassam’s troupe performs both in Kuwait and in Beirut and occasionally other Arab capitals (including Damascus before the uprising), so it travels back and forth with some freedom apparently. (If you think of the old Soviet Union, where some dissident theater companies and artists were tacitly tolerated as long as they stuck close to home. If they left the county, as happened to Yuri Lyubimov, they were stripped of their citizenship and refused reentry.) The playwright asserts that Kuwait permits greater freedom of expression than other Arab nations. The writer said, however, “It remains a conservative society, and there are de facto rules. You know, the three taboos are religion, politics, sex, not necessarily in that order . . . .” Yet, that’s precisely what SABAB covers; Al-Bassam’s plays are political and socially critical, though he apparently doesn’t name the country in which he sets his plays, so that may be his shield. “[T]hat this type of work is produced and supported by the State of Kuwait is an indicator of the robustness of its democracy and commitment to the institutions of civil society,” contends Al-Bassam.

Al-Bassam wrote The Speaker’s Progress in October 2010, but when it went into rehearsals in January 2011, the Arab world had already changed drastically. Popular uprisings, protests, and rebellions in what would become known as the Arab Spring had started in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Western Sahara since December 2010. By the time the play premièred in Kuwait on 20 February, the dictator in Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had fallen (14 January) and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had stepped down (11 February). The play, intended to chart “a decade of turbulence in the Middle East region, was to be concluded with a black satire on the inertia that crippled the Arab World, a bleak cry of despair and an avowal that theater—political theater—could change nothing in a world where nothing could be changed.” But the upheaval across the region required Al-Bassam to revise the script’s conclusion to reflect the historic changes. The play was reworked for its Beirut staging this September (as Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, another Arab strongman who’s since been killed, was “about to be hounded out of power onto the dust heap of history,” as the playwright put it). Al-Bassam and his troupe view “the metaphor of theater as an expression of freedom” and The Speaker’s Progress is meant to spotlight the importance of free artistic expression which, the writer warns, is always the first victim of oppressive regimes. (Though Shakespeare wanted to kill all the lawyers first, we remember that Plato would ban the poets—they are far more dangerous to a controlled society.)

The Speaker’s Progress, one of Al-Bassam’s series based on Shakespeare, revolves around the archival film of a performance of an Arabic adaptation of Twelfth Night. In an unidentified totalitarian Arab state where all theater performances and public gatherings have been banned, a condemned 1963 performance of Twelfth Night, an artifact from an earlier period of political radicalization and upheaval, has become the focus of resistance blogs and dissident underground social networks. (There is some mention of the 1642 closing of the theaters in England under the Puritans.) The state wants to silence this dangerous mix of nostalgia and defiance and to improve its image in the outside world. It commissions The Speaker (Al-Bassam), a once-radical theater artist who’s now become an apologist for the regime, to stage a “forensic reconstruction” that recreates and denounces the performance, captured on film. They are in a lab, not a theater, surrounded by technicians sitting at consoles and monitors of various kinds. (The production was designed by Sam Collins, an Australian artist and designer based in London.) As The Speaker and his group of volunteers (representing the Council of Virtue, the Writer’s League, the Democratic League of Students, the Tourist Board, and the Women’s League), only one of whom used to be an actor, dig into the demonstration, they become more and more caught up in the banned play, discovering in their performance a solidarity among their group that transforms the presentation into an open act of defiance towards the state. The Tourist Board representative is the government watchdog and there’s a camera placed ominously right in front of their reconstruction. The team follows the transcript, including all the blocking which is precisely dictated by a clinician following a script derived from the filmed performance—but at the same time, they all must follow the strict rules of social interaction such as the mandated distance between male and female demonstrators. They don’t wear costumes at the outset, but lab coats—though as the reconstruction develops, more and more of the performative trappings, including colorful Western costumes (designed by Abdullah Al Awadhi) and even emotional and psychological subtexts, are reintroduced into what’s becoming a true performance. Even The Speaker finds himself falling back into his old life and near the end of the demonstration, which has taken on a life of its own by now, The Speaker attempts to swallow a piece of paper containing information he doesn’t want to fall into the hands of the government minder overseeing the propriety of the project. (This, I believe, is The Speaker’s “progress.” He’s advanced from being a government toady to taking independent action, all because of the power of art.)

The Speaker’s Progress plays out in three forms of performance. First, of course, is the live demonstration, presented to us by living actors in real time. Second is the filmed performance from 1963, projected in black and white on a large screen behind the demonstrators, shown when the transcript is unclear or has gaps. This is the presentation of a long-past performance by actors who not only aren’t present but may not even still be living. Finally, there’s a “live” video interview with a former actor (“The Actor from The Golden Era,” played by Sa’ad El Farraj) who isn’t present in the lab but is speaking in real time as well. (This is a conceit, of course: the video conference isn’t actually real but taped. In the context of the play, however, it’s supposed to be live. There was also a brief fourth performance level, but it only occurred once. In order to simulate the forbidden contact between male and female characters, the actors playing the Viola part, here called The Boy-Girl, Amal Omran, because she’s dressed in male clothes—another sensitive act in this strict society—and Orsino, called simply The Ruler, Faisal Al Ameeri, go behind the projection screen and perform the action in shadow play so that they seem to be touching hands but aren’t really making skin-to-skin contact.)

The whole play—that is, The Speaker’s Progress not Twelfth Night—is also on multiple levels. There’s the production we’ve come to see at BAM, the present-moment performance. Then there’s the forensic demonstration at which we are the audience as well, but a diegetic audience, cast in a role within The Speaker’s Progress. And then there’s the performance inside the demonstration as the participants become engaged in the drama of the adaptation of Twelfth Night. At that last level, we as witnesses to the reconstruction are supposed to be part of the shift, but since as BAM spectators we’re not really in on the dynamic taking place, the SABAB actors have to imagine we’re shifting along with them. All these levels are working at the same time, of course, but they don’t really merge.

The actors, too, function on several levels. They are, of course, actors in the SABAB Theatre, performing a play called The Speaker’s Progress at the BAM Harvey Theater. Then they’re citizens of the unnamed country with pasts and presents, sketched out a little in the script. But they’re also representatives of various organizations which sometimes requires them to perform certain functions. And finally, they’re characters in the Twelfth Night adaptation. Only The Speaker has no role in Twelfth Night. (These several roles can overlap in a contrived—but amusing—way: the state minder plays the Malvolio role, here a Mullah (Fayez Kazak), the self-appointed guardian of proper conduct for both the characters (as The Mullah) and for the demonstrators (as the envoy of the Tourist Board). As the plays (The Speaker’s Progress and Twelfth Night) unfold, these roles become more and more entangled as the conscience of one role begins to impinge on the actions of another. (I’m not including here the level all performers have, that of their actual identities from off stage. This isn’t a play in which the actors appear as themselves and as characters.)

See what I mean about this little comedy having a lot to sort out and a lot to say? And I’m not getting into all of it because, as Al-Bassam told us after the performance (we had a brief conversation with him in the lobby), there are parts of the play that Arab audiences “just get” but that he hasn’t made clear to Westerners yet, and it has nothing to do with the language or the supertitles. He was very simply talking about the cultural divide—which is one excellent reason we need to see more theater from his part of the world. (The playwright’s still working on how to communicate those points.)

(I’ve said this before, and I will probably keep on saying it: I believe we learned more about life in South Africa under apartheid from the plays of Athol Fugard and Mbongeni Ngema or about living under communism in Czechoslovakia from Vaclav Havel’s plays than from all the lectures, essays, and newspaper columns on the subjects. We’re not just poorer for not being exposed to theater and art from distant cultures, but we have less understanding of the world. We remain more provincial and closed off, and that’s dangerous. Sulayman Al-Bassam may not be in the Fugard-Ngema-Havel league yet, but the impulse is the same. Sorry; I’ll put the soapbox away now.)

Al-Bassam wrote and staged a political comedy, with a message—or lesson, if you will—that’s intellectual and analytical. He wants to tell us something specific about his society and others like it and to reflect the current events in the Middle East he adjusted not so much his point as the way he makes it. But if Al-Bassam intended the play to be “an anguished cry of despair at the inability of art, and even people, to make change happen,’’ as he says, what he and his troupe have actually created is a palpable demonstration of the power of theater and art to defeat willful ignorance and censorship. Not only can’t The Speaker and the sole former actress among the demonstrators resist the pull of art, the non-actors among the team can’t, either—even though they all know that they have a government minder on duty and an all-seeing camera recording their conduct as they begin to project greater and greater involvement in the circumstances of the Twelfth Night adaptation and violate more and more of the imposed taboos. We’ve seen throughout history, including recent history in our own lifetimes, that art in repressive regimes, from the Nazis and Fascists of mid-century Germany and Italy to the Falangists of Franco’s Spain, to the Stalinist and Maoist authorities in the Soviet Union and China, to the revolutionary societies of Cuba, Iran, and Iraq, somehow manages to flourish and even excel, finding ways of exposing the truth to the world at large in lasting ways. Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (1942), a disguised indictment of French collaboration with the Nazi occupiers and an exaltation of the French Resistance, still speaks to us long after the political situation it limned has passed. Little by little, the clinical presentation of the reconstruction of Twelfth Night in The Speaker’s Progress morphs into a real theatrical production, with the demonstrator-actors experiencing more and more of the emotions felt by the characters in the filmed play. The characters in Al-Bassam’s Speaker’s Progress are infected with the art in the adaptation of Shakespeare’s play—they can’t resist it because its pull is too strong to be suppressed by the machinations of the state. (Art may be long, but it’s also powerful.)

I believe, from the evidence of the energy and apparent commitment of the SABAB cast, that the actual actors genuinely and fiercely feel the same way. In fact, The Speakers Progress may have more cogent things to say to an initiated—that is to say, an Arab—audience, but the play works at all for us Westerners because of the players’ faith in what they’re doing. It’s always been my opinion that political theater, which Speaker’s Progress is, often works better as politics than as theater. Only occasionally have I seen a political play that communicates its point of view and still comes out theatrical; the best example of which I can think was Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice as it was presented on Broadway in 1986. (If you consider Tony Kushner’s Angels in America a political play, then I’d have to put that at the top of the list. I rather think of it as a socially-aware drama, though.) In any case, Speaker’s Progress is undoubtedly political and as a play, it’s more interesting than good. In production, however, it did have much to offer—and I believe that was due to the way the company attacked the material: their energy and enthusiasm, I’d say their belief in what they were doing (perhaps especially for a foreign audience), informed their performing and infected us—much the same way that the characters’ growing engagement with the force of the art of Twelfth Night infected them and “their” audience in the diegetic performance.

I feel it’s necessary to say something about the obvious fact that SABAB is, by my own definition, a vanity company. Al-Bassam, clearly the inspiration for the company and its efforts, is the founder and artistic director of the troupe, and the writer, director, lead actor of this production. I’ve written of my disdain for such operations (“Vanity, Thy Name Is Actor-Director,” 22 September), and I’d seem hypocritical if I didn’t say something here. I made an exception for cases where “there’s a special talent at work” and I think Al-Bassam and SABAB are examples of that. Al-Bassam may not measure up to Orson Welles or Mel Brooks but he’s obviously the spiritual force behind this company in more than the artistic sense. It’s his vision that’s being put forth here, and that may take the hand of one visionary at the tiller. I don’t know enough about the company’s other work to be sure, but for now, I’ll have to accept that this is the explanation.

[The Speaker’s Progress is the final part—after The Al-Hamlet Summit, 2002, and Richard III—An Arab Tragedy, 2007, of the “Arab Shakespeare Trilogy.” (Richard III is the play I’d heard about earlier because it had played at Washington’s Kennedy Center in 2009 as part of “Arabesque,” a festival of Arab plays.) Other Shakespeare-based plays by Al-Bassam are The 60 Watt Macbeth, 1999; Hamlet in Kuwait and The Arab League Hamlet, 2001 (both early versions of The Al-Hamlet Summit); and Trading, 2003, based on Romeo and Juliet. Other scripts inspired by Western classics include Hayyal BuTair, 2010, based on Molière’s Tartuffe, and Everyman (Dreaming in Car Parks), 1996, inspired by the medieval morality play

Richard III was presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company in its 2006-07 Complete Works festival. In 2008, at the final performance of a tour to Damascus, the company was surprised by the attendance of President Bashar Al-Assad and his wife. I imagine that could be a little daunting. (I wonder if the Assads would turn out these days.)]

22 October 2011

'The Threepenny Opera' (BAM)

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music announced that it was hosting the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) as part of the 2011-12 Next Wave Festival, I knew I wanted to see it. I brought the season brochure to my frequent theater partner, Diana, so we could see if we could put together four Next Wave events in common to make up a discount and to settle on dates. Threepenny was one of the first productions in the fall season, and I was afraid it would sell out if we delayed too long. This was especially so because the production’s director was Robert Wilson, the renowned U.S. experimental theater artist; considering the three elements of the show—the play, the company, and the director—I was sure it would be hugely popular with the BAM audience. I would turn out to be prophetic: the run was sold out completely weeks before it opened and I overheard a BAM employee explain to a spectator at another Next Wave performance that very few ticket-holders canceled or didn’t claim their seats. (Scalpers were out the night I attended and while I was waiting in the lobby for Diana, I myself was approached to sell my seats.)

Unfortunately, I was also prophetic in my prediction that coordinating with Diana would be difficult. First, she absconded with the brochure, so I didn’t have it on hand to refer to. Second, she was tied up with personal affairs that kept her in New Jersey a lot of the time so I had trouble reaching her by landline, cell, or e-mail. By the time I did pin her down and we made decisions, the tickets had already gone on sale to the public (though we’d eventually decided not to take out a subscription because we couldn’t put together four events we really wanted to see), and when I called the box office, all that was left for the short residency of the Ensemble (4-8 October) were “partial view” seats. I knew that if I passed up this chance and tried to reach Diana to inform her and let her voice her preference, we wouldn’t have had any choices—it would have deteriorated to no seats available at all. So I made the decision for both of us to take the bad seats rather than not see the production at all. Happily, I made the right choice not only for me, but for Diana as well (and she’s less likely to be forgiving or accommodating than I am). So when we went over to Fort Greene on Thursday, 6 October, for the 7:30 performance of Threepenny at the Howard Gilman Opera House, the 2100-seat auditorium in the Peter Jay Sharp Building on Lafayette Avenue, we found that our seats were under the low overhang of the house-right box seats. Not only did we lose the view of anything above about halfway up the proscenium opening, but also anything to the far left of the stage. The performance was in German with English supertitles, but we also had no view of any title screen so we didn’t have the benefit of the translation of the dialogue and lyrics. (I’ll never understand why, knowing that those seats are out of sight of the screens—this isn’t the first time anyone’s sat there, for goodness’ sake—they don’t install a small screen under the boxes on each side of the house. Personally, I’d rather see a return to the old earphone system, but that’s labor-intensive.)

Fortunately for me, anyway, I still understand enough German that my familiarity with the play and the synopsis in the program helped me follow the performance quite well. That plus the excellence of the acting and directing made the experience not perfect, but well worth the decision I made. (Happily, Diana, who doesn’t speak any German, felt the same way and said so.) I had a bit of a stiff neck after the three-hour show, craning as I had to to see some of the stage we had left to us, but given the choice of seeing it this way or not seeing it at all, I made the right one. As one of the characters in Threepenny says, Gott sei dank! (“Thank God!”).

First, a little history and personal positioning. Brecht and Weill wrote Threepenny in 1928, an adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay’s 1728 parody of Handel’s operas. (Though the performance was in German, the Next Wave presentation was billed as The Threepenny Opera, its English title, so that’s what I’ll call it here.) Poet-playwright Brecht and composer Weill, two young novices (Brecht was 30 and Weill, 28), were satirizing the traditional operas and popular operettas of their day. The play premièred at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin on 31 August 1928 and was a great success, running over 400 performances. It opened in English in New York City at Broadway’s Empire Theatre on 13 April 1933, lasting only 12 performances. An Off-Broadway presentation at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel) in Greenwich Village, opening on 10 March 1954, stayed on for 96 shows. That production reopened at the same theater on 20 September 1956, however, and ran until 17 December 1961, over 2600 performances—a huge and unequivocal hit. (With a book and lyrics translated by composer Marc Blitzstein, this production included Lotte Lenya, Weill’s widow, as Jenny, the role she’d played in the Berlin première. I believe it was this version to which Bobby Darin paid tribute in his 1959 rendition of “Mack the Knife”—the pop version of “Die Moritat vom Mackie Messer,” “The [Death] Ballad of Mack the Knife”—in which he invokes Lenya by name. I was 12 when the song was released, and I loved it immediately—I was way into rock ‘n’ roll already—but I had no idea who or what Lotte Lenya was. Of course, I wouldn’t have known who Kurt Weill or Bertolt Brecht were then, either. Years later—1963, when I saw From Russia with Love—when I found out, I thought it was even neater in retrospect! I’m such a sucker!!)

The script was translated into many languages—ultimately 18—and between the 1930s and 1950s the play was presented in England, Austria, Switzerland, France, Poland, Hungary, Finland, Russia, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries, among many others, ultimately totaling over 10,000 performances. It was broadcast on radio and adapted for film; portions of it were recorded in many versions on vinyl, tape, and CD. It was even rendered into a puppet play by the Stockholm Marionette Theater of Fantasy (Broadway, 1966). It became arguably Brecht’s most popular and well-known work, especially among less adventurous entertainment-seekers. (It’s less overtly political than Brecht’s later plays, written as it was before the playwright committed to Marxism.) The Threepenny Opera was revived at Lincoln Center in 1976, a production of the New York Shakespeare Festival starring Raul Julia as Macheath and directed by Richard Foreman that ran for 307 performances. In 1989, a Broadway production starring rocker Sting as Macheath played 65 regular performances, and in 2006 at Studio 54, the Roundabout Theatre Company staged a revival starring Alan Cumming and featuring Cyndi Lauper as Jenny in a script adapted by playwright Wallace Shawn. I saw the ’76 Foreman revival with Julia at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, which used a new translation by John Willett and Ralph Manheim (from which the titles at BAM were drawn), and I thought it was excellent. I remember specifically thinking that it was an exemplary rendering of Brecht’s theater ideas in a commercial Broadway venue, demonstrating what I understood by the distancing technique (the famous Verfremdungseffekt) in a late-20th-century application. I still feel that way, but I now have an even better vision of what a Brechtian production of Threepenny could look like in the now-21st-century theater. (I’m really building this show up, aren’t I? I hope my report can live up to the hype.) Wilson’s Threepenny started at the BE, where he’s directed other productions, in September 2007.

Brecht, born in 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, started writing for local newspapers in 1919 and later that year, his first theater criticism began to appear. In 1918, Brecht composed Baal, his first full-length play, and the next year he wrote Drums in the Night (Trommeln in der Nacht), his first play to be staged which opened in Munich in September 1922. In 1920 or ’21, Brecht started to attend the performances of Karl Valentin who presented a political cabaret in beer halls. Brecht compared Valentin to Chaplin, whom he admired greatly and held up as a model for Epic Theater acting. The budding playwright continued to write innovative plays and poetry, and in March 1924, he staged his own Edward II as his first directorial effort and the beginnings of his Epic Theater ideas. In September, he got a job as an assistant dramaturg for Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater, bringing the young writer and, now, director to Berlin. His first play produced in Berlin, In the Jungle of Cities (Im Dickicht der Städte), opened in October 1924.

In September 1926, Man Is Man (Mann ist Mann) opened in Darmstadt, the first play by Brecht’s “collective,” a loose group of friends and colleagues that the playwright would depend on for the rest of his career. That same year, Brecht began studying Marxism seriously. With this group of artists, Brecht began to develop the theatrical theories and style with which he would become identified. In 1927, Brecht became associated with Irwin Piscator’s theater where the young writer learned many of the fundamental principles that would become the foundations of his own Epic Theater theories. Piscator’s overtly political theater was also an important lesson for the budding Marxist artist. That same year, Brecht began collaborating with Kurt Weill, starting with the Mahagonny project. The following year, Brecht and Weill adapted Gay’s Beggar’s Opera as The Threepenny Opera, which became the biggest success of the ‘20s in Berlin theater. In 1929, the two produced Happy End, but it wasn’t successful; 1930’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) opened in Leipzig and caused an uproar in the audience when Nazis began protesting. The new musical theater work, however, had a triumphant première in Berlin the next year.

Between 1930 and ’33, Brecht worked with his collective on his Lehrstücke, the teaching plays intended for small audiences of young communists, students, or workers. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany and Brecht left in February, fleeing first to Copenhagen. In April 1939, with war approaching, he left Denmark for Stockholm, Sweden. In April 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and Brecht fled Sweden for Helsinki, Finland. Obtaining a visa for the United States in May 1941, Brecht settled in Malibu, California, where he expressed his opposition to the German Reich and fascism. He composed many of his greatest plays as well, including Life of Galileo (Leben des Galilei, 1937-39/45-47), Mother Courage and Her Children (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, 1938-39), The Good Person of Szechwan (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, 1939-42), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui, 1941), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis, 1943-45), among others. He also collaborated with expatriate German film director Fritz Lang and composer Hanns Eisler on the film Hangmen Also Die! (1943), based on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a principal architect of the “Final Solution” who was known as “The Hangman of Prague.”

With the advent of the Cold War, Brecht was blacklisted in Hollywood and was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on 30 October 1947. Brecht denied membership in the Communist Party (a lifelong Marxist, Brecht never joined the Party) and gave no information on others; however, his HUAC testimony caused others to accuse him of betrayal and Brecht returned to Europe the very next day. He settled in Switzerland until 1949 when an offer by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) of his own theater and company drew him back to Berlin. The Berliner Ensemble opened in the Deutsches Theater (where Brecht had gotten his first job in Berlin) in what was then East Berlin in January 1949; the renovation of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (where Threepenny had premièred in 1928) was completed in 1954 and became the Ensemble’s longtime home. The playwright and director died of a heart attack on 14 August 1956 at the age of 58.

The Berliner Ensemble continued under the direction of his widow, actress Helene Weigel, and then a line of German theater artists, most famously playwright Heiner Müller in the 1990s. The company made several international tours even during the Cold War when the Soviet bloc kept its artists largely holed up behind the Iron Curtain. When I was in the army, my only overseas assignment was to West Berlin and I wanted desperately to go to the East to see a performance by the company that perpetuated Brecht’s theatrical heritage. I was frustrated by the Cold War, the same atmosphere that ultimately propelled Brecht to East Berlin. As an intelligence officer, I wasn’t permitted by my own side to enter Soviet-controlled territory; I was never allowed to go to East Berlin. In 2½ years, I never saw Brecht’s company perform his own works the way he ordained they should be staged. I didn’t get that chance until over 37 years after I left Berlin. Furthermore, this is apparently the 62-year-old Ensemble’s first visit to the United States. Given all that, it’s probably little wonder that I was thrilled to see this Threepenny Opera.

Now, I’m not going to write a treatise on Brechtian theater. Some of that may come up in my description and discussion of the performance, but that’s as may be. Otherwise, there are plenty of sources, both on paper and on line, for anyone interested in what Brecht believed and practiced. I will give a short synopsis of the plot, however, unlike the way I treated Oklahoma! in my last play report.

Written in three acts (but performed at BAM in two parts, with the break after the second act), Threepenny’s scenario is from Gay’s “ballad opera,” but transposed to the days before the coronation of Queen Victoria (1837). In act one, Macheath (“Mack the Knife,” or “Mackie Messer” in German, played at BAM by Stefan Kurt), leader of a gang of thieves, secretly marries Polly Peachum (Stefanie Stappenbeck). Her parents, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (Jürgen Holtz), the king of London’s beggars, and his wife, Celia (Traute Hoess), are furious and plot Macheath’s arrest. Tiger Brown (Axel Werner), London’s police chief and an old friend of Macheath’s who’s been protecting the thief all these years, visits Mack’s hideout. In the second act, Polly warns Macheath that her father plans to have him arrested, and Mack prepares to flee London. On the way, though, he stops at his favorite brothel to see his old lover, Jenny Diver (Angela Winkler), but he’s caught because Mrs. Peachum had bribed Jenny to turn Macheath in. In jail, Macheath is visited by both Polly and Lucy Brown (Anna Greener), Tiger’s daughter who helps him escape. When Peachum finds out, he coerces Brown into rearresting Macheath by threatening to let his beggars loose at the coronation parade. As act three opens, Macheath is found at the house of Suky Tawdry, another whore, and Brown arrests him and prepares to have him executed. Back in jail, when Macheath’s friends fail to raise enough bribe money to free him again, Mack prepares to die on the gallows outside his cell. Suddenly, a messenger from the queen (Gerd Kunath) arrives and declares that Macheath has been pardoned and must be freed immediately. Furthermore, the envoy announces that Mack has been granted a pension, a title, and a palace.

Wilson’s production, though set in the early 19th century, was costumed by Jacques Reynaud in the style of the Weimar cabarets (probably the kind performed by Karl Valentin and which also inspired Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret). The visual effect was reminiscent of some of the paintings and caricatures of Georg Grosz (who came from the visual wing of the same artistic milieu as Brecht and Weill). Nearly everything was in black and white, like old photos or silent film; even the make-up was pasty white (which, among other references, may have been an evocation of the 18th century of John Gay—when the upper classes took arsenic to make their skin pale—as well as Kabuki, which had been an inspiration for Brecht). There were touches of red, including one set of essentially giant red ribbons stretching across the stage, and the deus-ex-machina messenger of the queen was draped in a long, bright red, velvet cape. (The final curtain was also crimson velvet.) The rest was essentially monochromatic and high-contrast like a movie such as Robert Wiene’s 1920 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (It also seemed as if the whole company, with the exceptions of Mr. and, especially, Mrs. Peachum and Constable Smith [Uli Pleẞmann], went on some kind of extreme diet—or Wilson hired the skinniest actors in Germany. Axel Werner’s a beanpole of about six-and-a-half feet who may have weighed all of 150 pounds! As if to accentuate his height and thinness, his Tiger Brown wore a top hat.)

A further word about the make-up: the white-painted faces had accents of black around the eyes and the mouths that emphasized the unnatural appearance of the actors. In the same way that some Kabuki characters are made up in Kumadori style that outlines the face’s musculature, the Threepenny actors had painted expressions like weird (one review said “dead”) dolls or macabre clowns. (Kumadori is much more elaborate than the make-up here was, but the technique is analogous.) If you picture just about any rendering of The Joker in a Batman movie or the TV show, particularly Jack Nicholson in the 1989 film or Cesar Romero in the TV series of the ‘60s (sans the red grimace), you’d be just about right on. Macheath also had marcelled corn-yellow hair, unnatural and stark in comparison to the other characters; Polly was also blond, but her hair was more natural-looking and didn’t stand out. A few of the women and one of Macheath’s thieves had brick-red hair. This was all enhanced because the backdrop was formed by black curtains against which the ghostly characters really stood out. (I’ll get to the sets shortly, but they were all discrete set pieces in the center of the stage so the black background was always prominent.)

Wilson, educated as an architect who’s worked as a sculptor and installation artist as well as a director, took charge of the other design elements, including the set (co-designed by Serge von Arx) and lighting. (I might describe the actors’ movements as “sculptural,” too.) If you’re at all familiar with Wilson’s stage work—I’ve seen a number of his productions, including Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (which I saw in 1992), The Black Rider (1993), Alice (1995), The Temptation of St. Anthony (2004), and Fables de la Fontaine (2007; with the Comédie Française)—you know that he’s renowned for his physical staging and visual work. (He’s also known for the stylized movements of his actors, and I’ll get to that in a bit.) In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz calls the Gilman production “a living art installation.” For Threepenny, Wilson was clearly visually inspired by the German expressionistic film of the ‘20s (like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which I mentioned earlier). Set elements were fragmentary and exaggerated or stylized to evoke a psychological state. The jail cell in which Macheath is incarcerated, for example, was represented only by a single barred wall in front (with lighted bars wide enough apart for a man easily to climb through)—possibly to indicate how easily people like Mack could come and go at will. The gallows behind the jail cell in the last scene was one of the few realistic elements in the production, depicting the apparent very real danger Macheath’s life is in at that moment. The backdrop that appeared behind the scenes in Mack’s thieves’ den was a series of vertical and diagonal light tubes that called to mind the off-kilter remains of the World Trade Center right after the towers fell. The image was so close to the iconic view of the buildings’ exoskeleton that I can’t help but think the parallel was intentional.

In all, the atmosphere of Wilson’s Threepenny felt a lot like that in movies set in Victorian London, like Sherlock Holmes mysteries or Jack the Ripper thrillers: an alley or a tunnel somewhere where it’s dark and dank and scary. The shadows permit no color to come though and everything you see and hear is exaggerated and threatening. Except that in Wilson’s vision, it was also cold—like ice. There was no warmth available anywhere, not even in the characters’ veins, and it’s not an agreeable place. As one of Brecht’s underworld types says, “It’s not nice, it’s art” (“Das ist Kunst und nicht net”). Ben Brantley in the New York Times describes the production as “as cold as a body on a mortuary table”; in Philadelphia’s Broad Street Review, Carol Rocamora records that Threepenny was a “blast of icy air that blew through the Brooklyn Academy of Music.” Death and cold were recurring images invoked by most reviewers; even the Village Voice’s Michael Feingold, who rejected the production and apparently thoroughly dislikes Wilson, calls the production “gelid,” though in his case it isn’t meant to be complimentary.

“Minimalist” was another descriptive used often to portray the show’s look, especially its set. Most of the scenery, including the set pieces—the jail cell, the “WTC skeleton” (my interpretation, of course; I don’t know what else to call it)—was made of light. (Other than furniture, only the gallows wasn’t.) Tubes of light made up the WTC structure and the jail bars, as I said, but light played a big part in other scenes, too. The opening moment, with the front curtain closed as the characters moved across the apron, was backed with flashing Op-Art-like swirls of light and other backdrops were similarly constructed of illuminated geometric designs. Needless to say, however, the lights were white and cold, of course.

This brings me to the movement of the actors. That opening scene was flat and one-dimensional as the actors moved across from stage right to left, facing the audience for the most part. Their movements were mechanical, like automatons of some kind. In the rest of the performance, the actors moved not so much robotically, but more fluidly and not solely facing front. They were a little like marionettes with some of their strings cut. (I suppose another image I could cite would be zombies, reanimated corpses—minus the outstretched arms. The truth is, while I was watching the play, I was trying to think of a way to characterize the movement, and I obviously still haven’t.) In addition, each character had a distinctive movement pattern, some in the way they stepped and others in the way they held their torsos—like demented Monty Python “Silly Walks” routines. While John Cleese was hilariously funny when he did the bit, however, the cast of Threepenny was just bizarre. Macheath, for instance, though dressed in a black suit that actually sparkled with sequins, walked with a thin cane and seemed to be channeling Chaplin’s Little Tramp—though Kurt was a little more the boulevardier than an everyman. I’m not particularly good at interpreting symbols, but if I had to guess at what this might mean dramatically, I’d say Wilson sees Brecht’s characters as, if not dead, then as good as: they’d essentially lost their souls to capitalist pursuits. This would align with my reading of the single realistic set element—the gibbet.

After the movement, the most salient aspect of this Threepenny was the sound. Brantley even specifies that “it’s your ears that keep you awake, anxious and often enthralled” in this production. This included both the singing and speaking, as well as the effects. (I don’t agree that the aural overpowered the visual, however.) I’ll leave the singing and speaking aspect until I talk about the acting, but the sound effects were very prominent here. No non-vocal sound was produced naturally from the stage (that is, by the actors or even the set); it was all produced artificially by an off-stage technician, Joe Bauer. When anyone paid another character money, for instance, it was always in change (Macheath did toss around bills in one scene, but he wasn’t actually paying anyone) and the mimed dropping of the coins into the receiver’s hands or pocket was accompanied by the exaggerated and prolonged clanking of the silver into a metal box or can. Footfalls at significant moments, like Tiger Brown entering Macheath’s cell block, echoed artificially and loudly, as if someone wearing wooden soles were walking heavily through a tunnel. When Mack’s cell door was opened, the sound of the lock—anachronistically, an electronic lock—buzzed noisily throughout the theater. (There were several allusions to the present moment in Wilson’s performance text, and I’m sure this was meant to be one.)

Entirely in sync with the visual and aural style of the production, Wilson developed a performance style for the cast that was equally cold, artificial, and stylized. In consonance with the actors’ movements, their vocal work, especially speaking, was also idiosyncratic. (The technical name for this highly stylized and non-realistic type of performance is “eccentric” acting. Usually a comedic technique stressing the exaggerated artificiality of an actor’s behavior, it’s most commonly seen in clowning. Historically, it was a common practice in the stage work of avant-garde Russian directors Vsevolod Meyerhold and Sergei Eisenstein in the 1910s and ‘20s.) Brecht didn’t want his actors to express emotions in the conventional way, empathizing with the characters and feeling the same emotions the characters did. The eccentric performances of Wilson’s cast here were intended, I believe, to create the impression of emotions and psychological states by abstracting the physical manifestations and reducing them to simple gestures or facial expressions—say, in the way a mask communicates an emotion or psychological condition. The actor doesn’t necessarily feel anything, but strikes a pose or makes a face and we read what the character is meant to be feeling. It’s an intellectual response, as Brecht demanded. The white make-up and the padded or severely designed costumes, as well as the stylized speech and singing were all part of this scheme. For me, it worked (though I read some reviewers who were put off by the tactic). I won’t say that Wilson is a Brechtian—he’s much too taken with stage pictures and the look of his productions—but the two artists’ styles coincided in this Threepenny, along with the talents and backgrounds of the BE actors, to generate a production that I feel was Brechtian. If there was a fault along those lines, it was that Wilson’s production was too fascinating and too engaging on the level of theatricality to let me focus full-time on the circumstances that Brecht was depicting and to make a judgment of it from his portrayal. That’s a fault, however, I can overlook—even if I can imagine Brecht wincing a little at the outcome. (As an acting teacher of mine would say here: “But we don’t have Brecht’s phone number.”)

The BE’s eight-player musical ensemble, directed by Hans-Jörn Brandenburg and Stefan Rager (they’re the keyboardist and percussionist as well), produced Weill’s sound in a way that conjured up for my unlearned ear the Weimar cabarets of Berlin—at least as I imagine them from the popular renditions in film and on stage. Like the singing, this was not the tunefulness of a Broadway musical: it was harsher, more dissonant, less melodic—“The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” though the tune was recognizable as “Mack the Knife,” wasn’t the pop song I grew up with (not that I expected it to be)—and less pretty. The singers came in on the same note, more like what I’d say was Sprechstimme than musical theater singing. (The closest easily recognizable example I can think of isn’t operatic recitative, but the singing of actors like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Robert Preston in The Music Man, and Richard Burton in Camelot. That’s not exactly right; the Threepenny actors sang more than those other performers, but none was a Julie Andrews or Robert Goulet.) Oddly (or perhaps not), the musical performances were covered by few of the reviews I read even though it’s such an important part of Threepenny.

Brecht and Weill transposed Gay’s conflict of the beggars, thieves, and whores of London with the British aristocracy into a struggle against capitalism and the bourgeoisie. (“Das Geld regiert die Welt,” sings someone early in the play: “Money rules the world.”) The present BE production had echoes of current events, not only the on-going worldwide economic crisis and the bailouts, but the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that started long after Wilson first staged Threepenny four years ago. There were snippets of Frank Sinatra’s and Lady Gaga’s songs (the latter of which I didn’t recognize until I read it since I don’t know Gaga’s music), the WTC image, and the modern electronic lock sound to help remind us that what Brecht saw in 1928 is still true today. In the final act, when Macheath is back in jail and expects to be executed, after having shown up at the whorehouse dressed like a Wall Street banker and tossing cash around so that it floated down like so much confetti, he makes an impassioned speech about the outrages of bankers and industrialists ("Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?")—as if he’d been down in Zuccotti Park a few weeks ago speaking at a rally. (The audience I was in gave out a knowing laugh at these lines. Most of them had the advantage of the English titles, but I caught enough of the German at that moment to understand what Mack was saying. I haven’t checked the Willet translation or the German original to see if the lines had been altered to make the contemporary reference clearer, but somehow I think it was just a happy coincidence enhanced by Kurt’s spin on the delivery.) Of course, one of Brecht’s targets is hypocrisy, so if Macheath acts like a toff when he’s up and then like one of the disenfranchised underclass ("the 99 percent”) when he’s down, that’s the world Brecht’s showing us. The author’s other targets include greed and corruption—which are in plentiful evidence here in 2011 so Wilson and the BE don’t have to stretch far to make the connection. As Amy Lee of the Huffington Post remarks, “Wilson's version . . . has more to say about contemporary society than about history, and it delights in the parallels.”

The critical reception of the BAM staging of Threepenny was almost universally positive. From the New York Times to the Daily News to the New York Post and through most of the on-line journals, the reviewers all relished the visit of this production and the world-renowned company that performed it. Several had quibbles and cavils with bits of the show (some way off base, I think)—the long first part, comprising the first and second acts of Brecht’s script and running two hours before the intermission, was a common complaint. (There were seriously slow moments in the second-act portion of the first part, exacerbating what seemed like an interminable act. I thought part one was ending three times before it actually did.) A few reviews were less enthusiastic than most, but by and large they were all pretty close to raves. Only the Village Voice, as I mentioned, absolutely hated the piece. Michael Feingold, it seems, has no love for Robert Wilson’s theater, writing in his review that “Wilson has never really had any interest in the theater. He actively seems to disapprove of the theatrical impulse and even to resent its continued existence.” Of the show itself, Feingold states that Wilson turned “Brecht and Weill's middle-class wake-up call into dead entertainment for rich people.” He was, however, the only reviewer to come anywhere near this opinion, as far as I could find. From my own perspective, I couldn’t disagree with him more strongly. Even from my terrible vantage point, I found the experience exhilarating and more than satisfying. Wilson’s stage work has always fascinated me—I was less than delighted with Fables de la Fontaine and I found The Temptation of St. Anthony more pretty than engaging, but Black Rider remains one of the most astonishing pieces of theater I’ve seen and Wilson’s staging of Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, which I saw almost 20 years ago, still startles me when I think of it.

17 October 2011

'Oklahoma!' (Arena Stage)

On Tuesday, 27 September, my mother and I went to the new Arena Stage theater, called the Mead Center for American Theater, opened just this season, to see a matinée of their very successful and popular revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! My parents used to be long-time subscribers and attendees at Arena and I’d been going for many years on and off whenever I was in Washington, but neither Mom nor I had seen the new theater building the company’d built over about a two-year period (during which time, it had presented its productions in a couple of local theaters around the metro area, including the historic Lincoln Theatre in downtown Washington), so when the company announced that it was bringing back the hit revival, we thought it would be a great excuse to see the new facility. (Mother did see another play at the Arena in the interim, but at the time we bought the seats, several months ago, neither of us had been there.) I traveled down to Washington on Saturday for the express purpose of seeing the show, one of the classics on whose music I’d grown up (see “A Broadway Baby” on ROT, 22 September 2010), and we drove over to the new Arena on Southwest 6th Street, near the Potomac waterfront, arriving at about 11:30 a.m. to look around the Fichandler theater space a bit before taking our seats for a noon curtain.

The original Broadway production of Oklahoma! opened at the St. James Theatre on 31 March 1943, staying for a lengthy run of over five years, closing on 29 May 1948 after 2,212 performances. (The popular film adaptation was released in 1955.) After the première production garnered scores of encomiums, revivals have continued all around the country, indeed the entire world, since then, including several Broadway returns. Though I may have seen a production as a small child when we used to go to the Cape Cod Music Tent in Hyannis, Massachusetts, during summer vacations, I don’t remember it (though, as I mention in “Broadway Baby,” I do remember other performances there that made impressions on me). So for all intents and purposes, after growing up with the original-cast recording and the movie soundtrack (both of which I own, though the cast album was an inheritance from my father), this was my first time seeing the classic musical on stage. (I did watch the 2003 televised presentation of a London revival on PBS, just as I did with the Lincoln Center staging of South Pacific in August 2010, but that’s not quite the same as seeing it live.) The current remounting opened at the Fichandler Theater, Arena’s open-space theater-in-the-round, on 8 July (through 2 October) after an original run from 22 October through 30 December of last year, the inaugural production of the Mead Center which garnered four Helen Hayes Awards last February, Washington’s local counterparts to the Tonys, including Outstanding Resident Musical. (Peter Marks of the Washington Post called that first edition “an enchantment.”)

As I’ve said many times now, I have no real objectivity when it comes to these golden oldies. My response to them is all tied up with private nostalgia and my general love for the American musical from back when it was still called musical comedy. I never saw Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts, Howard da Silva, or Celeste Holm do Curly, Laurey, Jud, or Ado Annie, but those are the voices I still hear when I think of the songs from the Oklahoma! score. (Curiously, I don’t hear Gordon MacRea, Shirley Jones, Rod Steiger, or Gloria Grahame, even though I did see the movie when I was little and played that LP nearly as often as the Broadway album.) So when I tell you that I enjoyed this production immensely, with very few reservations or complaints, you have to understand my perspective. I love these shows so thoroughly that I can seldom find any real fault in them—unless the production really goes off the rails. I’ll say right here that this one did not—by any measure, I’d say.

Most of the current cast was the same as the one that first appeared in the Arena revival, staged by the troupe’s artistic director, Molly Smith, herself nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for the show. (I’m going to assume that anyone reading this already knows the story of Oklahoma!, adapted from Lynn Riggs’s 1931 Green Grow the Lilacs, or can find it easily, so I won’t recap it.) Because we saw a matinée, there were a few substitutions, the most significant of which was the actor we saw playing Curly. Performing the romantic lead here was Kyle Vaughn who normally dances Dream Curly in “Dream Ballet.” (He was also the designated understudy for Curly.) Since I never saw Nicholas Rodriguez do the role, I can’t compare the two performances, but I can say that Vaughn was fine, with an excellent tenor voice and matinée-idol (no pun intended) good looks, and solid acting skills. Not a thing was diminished, as far as I could see, from the switch.

Maybe I should get back to the performances in a bit and say a few words about the rest of the production first. I think I should broach the subject of casting, but only because it was there in front of us, not because there’s any need to explain it. The Arena is a stalwart practitioner of non-traditional and color-blind casting, and Oklahoma! was a multi-cultural company. Laurey and Aunt Eller were played by African-American actors (Eleasha Gamble and Terry Burrell, respectively; and Hollie E. Wright as Dream Laurey is an African-American dancer). There were Asian, Latino, and black cowboys, farmers, and farm women in this Oklahoma Territory. This didn’t enter into the dramaturgy of the production (though it did add a fortuitous frisson of additional meaning when Aunt Eller sings, “I don't say I'm better than anybody else, / But I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good!”), but I understand from the scuttlebutt that it disturbed some spectators—or at least detracted from their full enjoyment of the show. (I’ve seen many Arena musicals with interracial casting, including Damn Yankees, Camelot, and South Pacific, though this was the first show I’ve seen there in which one of the lead characters was cast interracially this way. It’s not, however, as if anyone in the Washington audience wouldn’t know the company acts on this commitment.) Though I don’t feel that an explication is necessary, I’ll quote director Smith’s program statement in this regard to put her on the record:

The only reason to do a revival is because you have something new to say about the story. My idea was simple—I wanted to create an Oklahoma that looks and feels like 1907 [the year it became a state] on the frontier—a time when it was a robust territory, not a state. This Oklahoma was a place where no one knew what it would become, but all were ready to leap forward. There was an essential wildness about the place and people.

Oklahoma was diverse—frontiers always are. Arena’s cast is an American tapestry, with all colors and types. African-Americans, Native-Americans and Asian-Americans lived in Oklahoma at [the] beginning of the 20th century. They shared a territory but lived in separate communities. Arena’s production celebrates this diversity but also reflects modern America where people from all backgrounds and races live and work together.

"Country's changing, and we got to change with it!" says Curly, so if you need a rationale for diverse casting, then I suppose this is one’s all right. (Delivered by Nicholas Rodriguez, a Latino actor who usually plays Curly, to Gamble’s Laurey, this line might have taken on an addition edge.) It’s a fantasy of an early-20th-century America, to be sure, but so’s Oklahoma! anyway. (Interestingly, Lynn Riggs, the author of the play on which the musical was based, was not only an Oklahoma native, but a Cherokee Indian. He wrote Green Grow the Lilacs in Paris in 1928.) It was part of the staging only visually, however, which is fine. I wouldn’t want lines inserted to “justify” the racial mix on stage. (After all, librettist Oscar Hammerstein II wrote in an important character of Persian origin, the peddler Ali Hakim, played by Nehal Joshi, and no one else remarks on his ethnicity—he makes reference to his Persian culture himself sometimes—even though some might see his role as somewhat demeaning by today’s standards. The cowboys and farmers of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma territory, at least, don’t treat Hakim any differently than they do each other—and Ado Annie’s dad is more than ready to make the peddler his son-in-law.) The old New Frontier depicted in Oklahoma! is certainly more heartening than the country reflected in today’s cancerous politics.

Creating sets for arena productions is often difficult since the designer can’t create backdrops or walls to help establish the locations and settings. The Arena overcomes this often by incorporating parts of the auditorium in the design concept, and Hayes-nominated set-designer Eugene Lee (who has several Tonys, too) decorated the house with wisps of tall grass, 45-star American flags, and other trappings of the period, region, and atmosphere. Over one vom was a windmill of the kind you might see in a prairie farm field, over another was the front porch and entrance to Laurey and Aunt Eller’s house, and over a third was a wooden enclosure on which was nailed the red banner with a large white star bearing the inscription “46”: the first state flag of Oklahoma, adopted in 1907 when the territory became the union’s 46th state. Next to the fourth vom was a structure than might be a house or a barn under construction (in the movie, there’s a barn-raising scene), with a long sluice running from a middle level to the stage as if hay bales or something might come sliding down from a loft. (The structure served as the “pit” for Musical Director George Fulginiti-Shakar’s 13-piece orchestra—he won a Hayes Award for his musical direction—and the platform was where Aunt Eller stood to auction off the hampers at the box social; the sluice was used in a couple of the scenes, especially dance routines, as a slide.) Aside from a few props that came and went, though, the stage floor was mostly bare, looking like the kind of makeshift stage a prairie town might erect for an outdoor square dance. (Jud’s smokehouse came up in the center of the arena square on a lift both for the “Pore Jud” scene and during the “Dream Ballet.” It ascends from the . . . well, nether regions as if Jud resided part time in hell.) It was both serviceable, accommodating the sometimes large cast (all those cowboys, farmhands, and their gals) and the dance numbers, and atmospheric enough to keep the play’s world in mind even when there wasn’t a lot of other scenery.

Arena’s costumes have always been good. I particularly remember the job the designer for 2004’s Camelot did, taking into account the multi-ethnic casting of the knights (there was an African warrior, a Middle-Eastern mamluk, and a Japanese samurai)—almost certainly anachronistic for Arthur’s Britain, but terrific visual fun nevertheless. Here Martin Pakledinaz created clothes that evoked the turn-of-the-century West (musical-theater style, of course) without coming off either too gritty (à la 21st century) or too prissy (pre-‘60s 20th century)—neither Clint Eastwood/Sam Peckinpah nor Tom Mix/Roy Rogers; they just looked nicely functional and colorful enough to dress up the often-empty stage. (As a sidelight to the current productions at the theater, “the Fich” was housing an exhibit of past Arena costumes around its lobby space, including that Camelot and the Damn Yankees I saw there in 2006.)

Lighting, as far as I can tell, is also a difficult design for an arena production, since the designer can’t use the back of the set for washes of color or the suggestion of moonlight and such. (The famous orange-red glow across the sky-cyc in the “Dream Ballet,” for example, just isn’t possible, obviously.) Lights can’t be focused so that they shine across the acting space into the seating section on the other side, so “side” lighting isn’t really possible on an arena stage, either. That means it all has to be basically practical—put light on the actors—and essentially overhead. This Michael Gilliam did effectively.

Oklahoma! is famously a dance show. The dance numbers all sprang from either the characters or the dramatic situation, starting a new musical-theater tradition (that culminated with West Side Story a decade later). Aside from the ground-breaking ballet sequence at the end of act one, there are several big ensemble numbers (“The Farmer and the Cowman” and “Oklahoma!”) as well as extensive duets and small-group dances. Choreography, originally by Agnes de Mille, is as important to this musical play as singing and acting. In this respect, the Arena production was less than stellar—and I’ve seen this in past Arena musicals as well. I don’t know a great deal about dance, so I may be misjudging the problems here, but I feel that choreographing on an arena stage is innately hard. In addition to all the usual considerations a choreographer has to make when conjuring dances for a musical drama, he has to keep in mind that everything the dancers do is viewed not just from the front but from all sides so that the dances have to look just as good from the sides and the back as they do head-on. By the same token, all the spectators deserve face-time with the cast, so the choreographer must design dances that rotate from time to time for no other reason than that all parts of the house get to see them face to face one fourth of the time. Finally, I believe most arena spaces are just smaller than the standard proscenium stage, giving the choreographer less room to “swing a rope,” so to speak. (This isn’t even considering the lack of levels the set on a proscenium or even thrust stage might offer to create interesting steps and visuals.) Pretty much all Parker Esse, another Helen Hayes nominee, had to work with was a bare platform, a little wooden square. Still, within those restrictions, Esse didn’t come up with much that was terribly interesting, much less spectacular. (The whirling chaps were kind of fun, I must say—the Dervishes have their caftans; these buckaroos had their chaps—but I don’t know how unique to this staging that is. Esse also had a clever bit with a pair of parallel clotheslines that became the reins of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”) The “Dream Ballet” was pedestrian and somewhat awkwardly danced, as if the cast of this long-running revival were still in rehearsal. Even Cody Williams’s acrobatics as Will Parker were subdued; he even slipped once coming out of an aerial flip. Of all the aspects of this Oklahoma!, the dancing was the least successful.

The other part of the show that didn’t measure up was the fight choreography, credited to David Leong. Leong has a long list of credits on Broadway and at the Arena, but I hadn’t seen any of the named shows in his bio so I don’t know if this was his usual work or an aberration. The fights just weren’t credible even in the context of musical theater. Again, I understand that choreographing fights might be harder when there’s audience on all four sides—hiding pulled punches is tough when you can’t block much of the audience’s view—but everything was slow, though not enough to evoke slow-motion (which wouldn’t have been appropriate in this production anyway) and looked very much as if the actors were all going through the movements by the numbers without the acting element of committing to the emotions behind the fight. (Next to a love scene, I’d say that a fight may be the most emotion-laden moment in which an actor can engage.) The most damaging—and confusing—example was the fatal knife fight between Curly and Jud near the end. Along with the other faults, the moment of Jud’s stabbing was so illogical and badly timed, I wasn’t even sure I saw what had happened and Jud was facing me directly when it occurred. (My mother, sitting next to me, didn’t see it, and spectators in other sections of the house probably had no idea what had taken place.) Jud had drawn his knife and he and Curly struggled center stage for a few seconds, then Curly threw Jud off to his left (that is, toward my seating section) and Jud, standing but slightly hunched over at the waist, stabbed himself in the belly. There didn’t seem to have been any reason the force or momentum of his movement would have caused this; it was almost an afterthought. Jud then pulled the knife out, revealing a blood spot, and returned to Curly and they grappled some more. Then Jud reeled backwards a few paces, stumbled, and fell to the ground on his side, clearly now dead or dying, the knife sticking in his stomach again. The whole sequence seemed sloppily conceived and clumsily executed, not to mention illogical. If the performers couldn’t do the stabbing in one of the fight’s clinches, hidden from clear view by the audience but visible enough for us to know what was happening, then how about just having Jud fall on the knife when Curly threw him out of a clinch? It would be cleaner and everyone would see what happened easily and, I hope, believably.

But when it came to the acting and singing, I had very little to complain about. I will say, with no reflection on the performers, that the amplification system in use got muddy at the higher volumes making it hard to hear some of the lyrics (as if I didn’t already know most of them by heart anyway—but there are, amazingly, a few songs that aren’t so well known: “It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!” and “Lonely Room”). Everyone knows by now how I feel about electronic amplification (see “The Sound of Muzak,” 6 June), but I still say it’s a shame that singers can’t work without it today. (Mikes were used for the spoken dialogue, too.) Nonetheless, the performers were all fine otherwise when it came to their roles and their songs. In the leads of Laurey and Curly, Eleasha Gamble, who was also nominated for a Hayes Award, and Kyle Vaughn were both solid and strong but with enough sense of humor to keep the characters from being latter-day Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Gamble’s Laurey started to seem like a Sooner mean-girl in the first few moments of her meeting with Curly, but the actress softened and began to seem like the teenager Laurey is—she’s about 18 in the play—not quite sure what she wants or how to get it. As Jud Fry, the third side of the central romantic triangle and one of musical theater’s darkest villains, Aaron Ramey displayed a magnificent baritone—his one solo number, “Lonely Room,” was almost frightening in its implications—and a strong sense of character, exuding an almost Pinteresque threat, especially before we really know what Jud’s capable of, and just the right note of the tortured soul that comes close to making him pitiable. Terry Burrell’s Aunt Eller was just whip-sharp enough to make the cowboys and farmhands pull up short lest they make her angry—she cows them nicely in “The Farmer and the Cowman”—but you still know that she’s everyone’s favorite adopted aunt, the town’s heart if not its brains (which she probably is, too).

In the second love triangle, Cody Williams as Will Parker, the womanizing-and-gambling, slightly dim suitor of Ado Annie, was appropriately cocky and brash, making those traits all the more striking because Williams is a little guy. Aside from the one dance slip I mentioned earlier, his energetic dancing was also enjoyable. Williams, who also garnered a Helen Hayes nomination for this role, had the most character-ly voice in the cast and he made the most of that in his comic songs “Kansas City” and “All er Nothin’”—the first a nice dance number with the cowboys and the second a terrific two-scene with Ado Annie, off of whom Williams played very well. In June Schreiner’s hands (and voice), Ado Annie—one of my all-time favorite musical theater characters—was much more of a little girl just discovering her sexuality than either Holm or Grahame (who were both women who knew what they could do, even if they couldn’t always control it). Schreiner was the only female on stage who was an actual “girl” as opposed to a “young woman,” which may have been because Schreiner’s a high school senior! Her scenes with both Will Parker and Ali Hakim were standouts. Petite and strawberry blond, with her hair in twin pigtails down her back, she looked like that wind sweepin’ down the plain could blow her away, but she had the determination to blow right back: Schreiner’s got a big soprano voice in that little package. (Gamble is a somewhat bigger gal than Schreiner, but when the two were together, you’re not sure Ado Annie couldn’t take Laurey just by sheer will and energy! I have a feeling Kristin Chenoweth was a little like Schreiner when she was 18.) Finally, the odd part of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler and philanderer, was fulfilled with great humor (and a little well-placed cowardliness) by Nehal Joshi, who managed to avoid any obvious incursion of period stereotyping or caricaturing. (It’s not possible to avoid it all: the character is written a little that way, from the perspective of the 1940s. I suppose it’s significant that the character’s not an Arab or a Jew. I suppose Persia was sufficiently exotic in the 1940s to be protected a little from preconceptions—the name had changed to Iran officially in 1935; I looked it up.) Hakim’s dealings with Will Parker, the slick merchant and the slow-witted cowpoke, were small masterpieces of comic misdirection and ambiguity, nicely handled by Joshi and Williams.

It’s an additional amusement, by the way, that Hakim’s cart, a peddler’s horse-drawn wagon in the film, of course, and probably a large hand-pulled cart in proscenium productions, was here a small contraption mounted over the front wheel of a bicycle! I don’t know how Hakim traverses the Midwestern plains in that thing (but, then, how does Porgy get to New York from South Carolina in a goat cart? It’s best not to ponder these things too much), but it makes a wonderful visual gag. (Maybe he ties the wagon up in town and uses the bicycle cart for his local sales visits. Saves the horses, I guess.) Whatever the rationale in set designer Lee’s or director Smith’s mind was, it’s enough justification (for me, at least) that it was functional—and cute. Functional and cute is a good thing! (What can I tell ya—I’m easy!) Late in the show, a small “horseless carriage” putted across the stage, allowing a peek at what’s to come along with those seven-story skyscrapers and Bell telly-phones.

Molly Smith, who was a New Frontierswoman for a long while herself (she founded Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre in 1979 and ran it for 19 years), took a slightly liberal perspective on the musical classic. The casting was one indication of her view of the play and its implications, and she and Parker Esse updated the dances in the sense that they’re more acrobatic and energetic than de Mille’s more traditional mid-century Broadway steps. There were also hints of line- and clog-dancing (to my uneducated eye, at any rate) redolent of today’s country-flavored hoedowns. The traditional point-of-view of Oklahoma! is, as expressed in the movie, a rose-colored view of America’s past and the expansion westward. I think Smith wants us to concentrate on the future(s)—the one about to start for the residents of “a brand new state” and, by implication, ours. (In a sense, there’s another future on the cusp here as well: this Oklahoma! inaugurated the Arena’s $135 million new theater complex, the beginning of the troupe’s new life to come, too.) If I’m right, she’s a lot more optimistic or hopeful than I am right now—but I don’t think that’s wrong for theater. Especially in a musical. Maybe we need to be reminded what other possibilities there are. In any event, Smith didn’t violate the spirit of the play at all, and did a very nice job putting it on the stage for us to relish.

Just for the record, Arena’s Oklahoma! broke all kinds of box-office records for the troupe and all the reviews were laudatory, some in the extreme. There was a lot of punning—in which you’ll notice I also engaged—with Terry Ponick in the Washington Times declaring, “’You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!’ And Oklahoma’s, O.K.!” and Marks in the Post saying, “That bright golden haze is just as radiant the second time around” (on his own second go-round).

I said that seeing Arena’s re-revival of Oklahoma! was an excuse to see the new theater—but to be honest, I shouldn’t have needed an excuse. The show was its own justification—particularly from my perspective as a sucker for old-time Broadway musicals. A few cavils aside, I’ll say unequivocally that I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more (except for the unlikely chance I could go back in time and catch Alfred Drake, et al., in the preem—a chance that may be less unlikely now that scientists may have discovered particles that travel faster than light!). Since I’ve admitted that I have a hard time being critical of these shows, I guess my assessment is suspect. So, take it as you will. I’m stickin’ to my guns. Whatcha gonna do? Spit in my eye?

[Because Oklahoma! was the opening production at Arena’s new Mead Center and this was my first visit to the new theater, I’m considering writing an article on the building, its construction, and the history that brought the company to this point after 61 years. And because the troupe staged many of its productions in Washington’s 90-year-old Lincoln Theatre while it was displaced from its home base, I’m also thinking of writing a sort of companion piece about that historic theater and its sister, the Howard, which hold a significant place in the history of American popular entertainment. (There’s also a family connection in this history, which impels me to follow through on this idea.) Nothing’s been committed to words yet so I don’t know when either of these articles might appear on ROT, but if I do write them, I expect it will be before the end of 2011. In the meantime, I’ve recently seen two interesting productions at BAM, the Berliner Ensemble’s Threepenny Opera directed by Robert Wilson and Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Speaker’s Progress, and there will soon be reports on those performances on ROT. I hope readers will return to this site to read my impressions of those and future performances.]

12 October 2011

Max and Gertrud Bondy

[Radical educational reform and experimentation has a mixed history in this country, especially at the liberal end of the spectrum. John Dewey (1859-1952), the American philosopher and psychologist, has arguably had the most influence on progressive theories of teaching and scholastic organization in the United States. His ideas, however, if carried too far or applied injudiciously, can descend into Auntie Mame travesties of self-indulgence or formlessness. As sociologist, poet, writer, and public intellectual Paul Goodman (1911-72) writes: “On the whole, the history of progressive education has not been a cheerful one. Its ideas and methods have been stolen and bastardized precisely to strengthen the dominant system of society rather than to change it.” A few attempts at a new paradigm for educating young people have appeared on the scene from time to time, though most didn’t last very long despite impressive successes in the fields of teaching and learning (usually for reasons more connected to administrative or financial problems, or both). Goodman and, especially, Dewey both were often associated with these schools, one of which, the New School for Social Research in New York City, founded in 1919 (and renamed the New School University in 1997 and then simply the New School in 2005), is still operating successfully. Its more radical cousin, Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, lasted only 24 years, from 1933 to 1957. Black Mountain was virtually an open educational system where the faculty and students worked in partnership more like masters and apprentices and the teachers were not only educators but often prominent practitioners in their fields, especially in the arts and letters. Black Mountain became a center for arts training during its short existence, but the near absence of an administration, which the founders saw as an impediment to learning and open inquiry, eventually led the school to descend, as historian, essayist, and playwright Martin Duberman described in his study of the experiment, into “little more than a group of squabbling prima donnas.”

[Strangely, though, another, very similar experiment unfolded in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, directed in this instance at teenagers. The Windsor Mountain School also lasted only a short time, from 1939 to 1975, but it followed many of the same practices as Black Mountain (from which, perhaps not coincidentally, some of the faculty came), with, perhaps, a little more structure and formality—though not much. The founders of the unusual prep school were Max and Gertrud Bondy, World War II refugees from Germany by way of Switzerland, who’d developed their philosophy of education beginning in 1919 in Europe as a response to the growing authoritarianism they saw developing in German society following World War I. I learned of the Bondys and their school when I began doing research into the life and career of Leonardo Shapiro, the innovative stage director I knew in the 1980s and ’90s and about whom I’ve written many times now on
ROT. Independent of Leo’s connection to the Bondys and the influence he felt Windsor Mountain, from which he’d graduated in 1963, had had on him, the story of Max and Gertrud Bondy is fascinating and worthy of note. I hope ROT readers will agree. ~Rick]

When Max Bondy (1892-1951), a former art historian, returned to Hamburg in November 1918 after service as an artillery officer with the German Reichsheer in World War I, he saw that his countrymen had become accustomed to cruel behavior toward one another and, especially, to prisoners of war. He decided that this situation had arisen because, as children, the Germans hadn’t been taught “decency and love” but “only to obey.” Bondy saw the German public schools of the day as focusing almost exclusively on obedience and stern discipline. Germany had raised a generation of bullies, cruel to anyone weaker than they. The only way to change this, Bondy decided, was to change the way children were educated. Before the war, Bondy had observed that the young men at universities habitually tormented their younger schoolmates and that their social organizations promoted drinking and found great honor in dueling and bearing scars. Parents treated their sons with extreme strictness but didn’t teach them respect for others. Bondy organized a club in which the aggressive impulses of the members were spent in debating, animated discussion, sports, and mountain climbing. In fact, mountain climbing, an activity which required skill, courage, and daring, but which pitted the men not against one another but against the mountain, served as a metaphor for the kind of non-competitive pursuit the Bondys encouraged.

In 1923, Max Bondy and his Prague-born bride, the former Gertrud Wiener (1889-1977), one of the first female physicians in Germany whom Max had married while she was still in medical school, founded a school, initially in Gandersheim, Lower Saxony, and then in 1929 in Marienau, south of Hamburg, as an alternative to the public schools. Their goal, pursuant to a dream Max Bondy had formed with friends who hadn’t survived the war, was to educate a new kind of German, with a “sense of responsibility, self-respect and the desire to be a new person.” Schule Marienau became one of the first in Germany to establish a student government as the Bondys endeavored to develop an atmosphere of mutual trust and reliance instead of discipline and punishment. “We wanted the students to feel that they could be leaders and be responsible for themselves,” Gertrud Bondy said, “building up a life in the school.” Self-government for the Bondys wasn’t merely meant as a way to inculcate democracy; more importantly for their epistemology, it was intended to direct the students’ energies to productive and beneficial activities. “We have often seen that the most aggressive young person has become the most energetic leader of the group,” explained Max Bondy.

Small at the start, Schule Marienau was organized into groups with each group functioning as a community, the members of which did everything together, for and with one another. Each group of eight to ten students had a teacher as an adviser and an elected student as a peer leader. If two groups developed a dispute, they’d stage mock combat “in the spirit of sportsmanship,” fighting for treehouses which they’d built. Whereas traditional German boarding schools had strict discipline similar to U.S. military schools, reinforcing the sense that there was an authority over the students, Schule Marienau wanted the adolescents to feel they could become leaders and, as Max Bondy phrased it, “self-sufficient people who will take their responsible place in future life.”

In 1931, on the cusp of the National Socialist’s take-over of the German government, Max Bondy said: “We see the standard of the German youth continually declining. His way of thinking gets more and more dependent. One rarely meets a critical, well-educated individual anymore.” Independent thinking and judgment, the Bondys believed, can defeat the mob mentality of suppressive authority, but it should also benefit society by leading its members towards the common good. The educational reformers saw teaching cooperation as “the real antithesis” to Social Darwinism: instead of the notion that “the basis of education is competition,” schools should promote the maxim, “The group that is best able to cooperate and live together has the best right and chance for survival.” A student who didn’t learn the basic lessons of the Bondys’ new community quickly either changed under their guidance or was dismissed from the school.

(I haven’t been able to confirm this, but it sounds as if one of the Bondys' inspirations was Prince Pyotr Alekseyevich Kropotkin, a Russian aristocrat who grew disillusioned with life at the imperial court. Kropotkin, 1842-1921, author of Mutual Aid, insisted that cooperation and mutual assistance are the standard in both nature and human society, attacking Social Darwinists for their view that the world is essentially competitive. Windsor Mountain alumnus Leonardo Shapiro cited Kropotkin as a personal inspiration and I believe that he learned of the Russian anarchist’s philosophy and possibly read Mutual Aid while he was at the school. I don’t know whether the book would have been assigned reading or if precocious students like Shapiro were just encouraged to read such challenging fare. In any case, Kropotkin’s philosophy dovetails with the Bondys’ pedagogical principles.)

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, the public schools soon began teaching ideas that contradicted what the Bondys believed. The reformers “saw at once that the drive to hurt, both physically and mentally, to indulge people in the wildest cruelty and meanness, all those ‘uneducated’ drives, revealed themselves in the majority of German adults.” Teachers in the state schools, the Bondys believed, ignored the truths established by modern psychology indicating that these kinds of impulses were part of the human constitution—Hitler, explained Max Bondy, hadn’t created these drives—and can’t be eliminated—but they can be “educated.” “Too late for the world it was discovered that . . . if they are not educated,” insisted the Bondys, “they will break through in some way that may damage the world terribly.” Perhaps most significantly to their agenda, the Bondys concluded, “It was not the neurotic or psychopathic; it was the average German whose drives were uneducated.” Max Bondy pointed out that “Hitlerism, Chauvinism, anti-Semitism, freshman hazing, groping, etc., apply to normal average people and not to sick people.”

They saw the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws which discriminated against all kinds of minorities, particularly Jews, and “sanctioned the open display of sadistic drives.” (The Bondys were Jewish by heritage, though they had been baptized as Lutherans in 1924.) The establishment of the concentration camps and the horrors that took place there following on the seizures of the possessions and murders with impunity of members of the outcast groups were anathema to the Bondys and their followers. The Marienau students were shocked at what they saw happening around them and the Bondys saw more clearly the need for education. A few years earlier, Max Bondy noted: “We are observing with fear the decline of the thinking and acting of the majority of the German students into the thinking and acting of mobs. The present public school system seems to be unable to counteract the mob spirit efficiently.” In 1936, Gertrud Bondy, who’d also studied psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud in Vienna, took as many students as wanted to go and moved them to Gland, Switzerland, on the northwestern shore of Lake Geneva. (Coincidentally, Gland, 17 miles north of Geneva, is only about 11 miles from the town where I went to school one year myself more than 25 years later.) Max stayed in Germany under the impression that the Nazi philosophy couldn’t sustain itself. When he realized he was wrong, he joined his wife in Switzerland in 1937 and they built a new school founded on their old principles.

In 1939, the Bondys emigrated to Windsor, Vermont, and established the Windsor Mountain School based on these same principles the following year. After moving briefly to Manchester, Vermont, the school settled in its final location in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1943. Upon Max Bondy’s death in 1951, Heinz Bondy (b. 1924) assumed the headmastership of the school, which closed in 1975. (Heinz Bondy’s older sister, Annemarie Roeper, b. 1918, married a man who’d been a student at her parents’ school and came to the U.S. with her husband in advance of the Bondys. The Roepers moved to Detroit where they founded a school dedicated to the education of gifted students. The Roeper School is still operating.) Shapiro described Heinz Bondy as “the voice of leadership, of experience and doubt—tempered idealism.” (Gertrud Bondy, then already over 70, was “the soul of the school.”)

Among the fundamentals of their philosophy was the establishment of a “friendly school”—a description Max Bondy preferred over “progressive school,” which he felt sanctioned the indulgence of a student’s “individual leanings” without considering others’ needs and rights—which fosters an atmosphere of trust among the students and between the students and the adults. This friendliness, the Bondys argue, isn’t mere “practical politeness to keep outside friction to a minimum.” Max Bondy explained:

If the aggressions of a young person express themselves in a wrong way, it is because he feels constantly attacked and his attacks in turn are his self-defense. If this is so, we have to create a community life in which his fears and anxieties are not confirmed by reality. Therefore we try to create an atmosphere which is more friendly than usual in the ordinary life period. We explain to our colleagues why they must really listen when a child talks to them, not only that they must show patience but that they must honestly take the child seriously.

The Bondys’ goal was the development of “mutual recognition, respect, and, if possible, friendship” among everyone in the group and beyond it. They also advocated the “education of the emotions,” a psychologically-based form of instruction aimed at redirecting the aggressiveness that they believed was innate and ineradicable in humans but could be put into constructive efforts. Max Bondy conceded that the existing schools did well enough with the “education for knowledge,” though some could criticize the material taught, he acknowledged. They also succeeded in the “education of behavior,” what we’d call socialization and good citizenship; and there was sufficient “training for acceptance of outside control, punctuality, and tidiness.” (Max Bondy made these claims in Europe in the 1930s; I wonder if he’d still make them today in this country, given the problems identified with the consequences of our public education.) But the Bondys found that “most educators have not even devoted time to a discussion of methods” for training the emotions, which he termed “the main task of education.” “That is a deeper reason for the idea of our self-government,” explained Max Bondy. Having concluded that the German people’s aggressiveness under the Nazis was in part the consequence of the lack of any emotional training, leaving them unable to resist the pull of authoritarianism, the Bondys insisted, “We want to give the young people the possibilities for working out their aggressions in a positive way.”

The “anti” feelings the Bondys saw exercised around them, the prejudices, bigotry, and hatreds of one group for another, they contended were not the result of improper understanding or an intellectual failing of some kind, but the lack of emotional training that impelled the haters and bigots to direct their own fears and anxieties into aggressiveness and violence. The domestic counterparts of this aggression included the tyranny of a parent over the family or the rejection of a child or spouse. The educators also recognized it in less-destructive behavior such as rudeness, hurting others clandestinely, and engaging in gossip and slander. As Max Bondy asserted:

We do not need to believe fatalistically and pessimistically in the hopelessness of human nature when we see these drives which are destructive and a handicap to happiness and joy. We know today that all these drives of hatred and aggression can be tamed through our knowledge of modern psychology. Psychological insight gives a new opportunity for the betterment of education.

The Bondys believed that all children face “disappointments, lack of security, lack of guidance” which “make a child feel lonely, weak, and lost.” As a consequence, the children develop “anxiety, insecurity, and inferiority feelings” which put them “on the defensive,” generating “feelings of hatred and jealousy” so that they act out aggressively by breaking things or hurting animals and other people. As we grow up, most of us learn to suppress the destructive behavior, but the impulse is still there in our psychology, hidden behind the veneer of politeness and socialization.

The friendly atmosphere established at Schule Marienau and later at Windsor Mountain was the key to the emotional training that would assuage those fears and obviate the impulse to violence. What Max Bondy called “the main idea of our school” was to generate an atmosphere where people don’t feel isolated, where they don’t need to defend themselves because no one’s attacking them. If you don’t feel afraid, the reformers believed, you don’t lash out. This is what Max Bondy called the “atmosphere of general friendliness,” the environment that makes “‘laws’ and ‘limitations’ bearable and livable,” referring to the rules the community sets, first, “to transform the child into a well-adjusted social being, and secondly, to enable him to get as much as possible out of life.” The students are also shown that those who are older or stronger, including the teachers and other adults, don’t get more rights or privileges than anyone else; bullying the younger or weaker gains nothing. Even though it seems that this setting doesn’t exist outside of the schools’ campuses or that “hard reality forces feelings of distrust and anxiety,” the Bondys insisted that the practice was still both valid and effective. Max Bondy did grant that the emotional education he advocated was easier to accomplish in small groups like boarding schools of limited size, where an adolescent can get a complete view of the entire community, than in a family, where the family dynamics make it difficult, or large schools, where a less-personal atmosphere exists and the potential for loneliness is greater. He also emphasized that the national, ethnic, and religious mix of the school community like Windsor Mountain was an important element in the emotional training. The reformers asserted that, though it can take years, they had proved in practice that young people will gradually feel less hostile and insecure as they find that others, including adults and even strangers, listen to them and take them seriously.

The education offered at the Bondys’ schools, as well as other forms of instruction, was accomplished as much outside as inside the classroom, in conversations with the adults which were often initiated by everyday events. The idea that adults listen to the children and pay attention to their questions and concerns, whether in class, in formal conferences or meetings, or in casual conversations on the school grounds, was part of the way the friendly campus enables the emotional training. The teachers and other staff of the schools had to learn to listen carefully because the students’ real concern might be disguised as an innocent and even frivolous question or passing remark. Furthermore, the adults were admonished sometimes to come at an issue obliquely, by “philosophizing” with the student or offering academic help and easing into the more fundamental matter. (We can see here the influence of Gertrud Bondy, who we should remember was a trained psychoanalyst.) Teaching at Windsor Mountain (and, I would surmise, at Schule Marienau as well) wasn’t easy, as the faculty had to expose themselves freely to the students’ scrutiny and demonstrate clearly that they aren’t hypocrites who use the students for their own ego-enhancement. The student units were also meant to offer support and attention to anyone feeling adrift. And although students who engaged in selfish or aggressive behavior were left to suffer the unpleasant consequences of their actions, punishment, which the Bondys believed led to resentment and anger, was rare. The important aspect of the mutual respect and friendliness was that the adolescents weren’t left alone with their problems but were allowed to speak their minds and voice their concerns in an environment where they’d get sympathy and understanding. This, the Bondys affirmed, was how confidence was built and, therefore, a sense of personal security fostered.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t incidents of bad conduct at the Bondy schools. There were occasional occurrences of everything from laziness and gossiping all the way up to making hostile ethnic or racial remarks about another member of the community. In addition to dealing with the immediate transgression itself, as well as its consequences, the schools turned these incidents into “teachable moments,” as we call them today. “We do this by encouraging lively discussions,” explained Gertrud Bondy, “giving people the opportunity of letting out their aggressions in words, proving their points and understanding the opposite opinions. This is a much more positive life.”

The Bondys continued their emphasis on student government as a way to teach the students leadership responsibilities and their encouragement of independent thinking and individuality in service to the larger community. Members of the unit were assigned responsibilities to increase their interest in the welfare of the entire group. In response, of course, the older students and the group leaders approached the younger and newer members with the friendliness fostered by the schools’ philosophy. The Bondys recognized two kinds of ambition: one, the drive for renown and power; the other, the desire to do the right thing. It was this second kind of ambition that the Bondys intended to instill in their students. Students who weren’t leaders were expected to try to become what they wanted to be. Being a leader in the Bondys’ epistemology meant seeing that life was enjoyable and satisfying for everyone in the community. Being disruptive or selfish was clearly not the way to accomplish that. If students were interested in becoming part of the student government, they would have to work to develop the leadership qualities that would take them to that goal.

The Bondys established an atmosphere in Lenox where adolescents were encouraged to “find their own voice” and engage in “radical political thought” as well as “self-motivated artistic endeavors.” The Windsor Mountain School, in the words of former student Steven Court, specialized in educating “kids who were the black sheeps of their family” in an environment free of rules and administrative repression. (Court, whom I interviewed in 1997 by phone in Iowa City where he was a grad student at the University of Iowa, was a student at Windsor Mountain from 1970-73.) An earlier alumnus, Jeffrey Horowitz (class of ‘64), founder of New York’s Theater for a New Audience, observed that the student body included “a number” of “misfits” and that the school encouraged and supported them. The freedoms—intellectual, social, political, sexual—offered by Windsor Mountain School all had profound repercussions on its students in their adult years.

Max and Gertrud Bondy saw “formal” education, by which they meant conventional schooling, as a way to teach people “to present only a smooth uniform exterior” while suppressing their individuality and independence of mind. “We consider [the formal school’s] method of education ‘non-educating’ or ‘mis-educating,’” declared Max Bondy. “The formal school only knows a uniform education, it does not recognize the importance of individual education.” With a student body of about 250 and a student-to-faculty ratio of seven to one, Windsor Mountain nurtured a “friendly atmosphere” that fostered mutual trust and respect in which student-teacher relationships were “close and informal.” One senior student, extolling the faculty members’ interests in non-academic pursuits like motorcycles and photography, acknowledged, “I relate to teachers like friends and equals, not like teachers.” As Paul Goodman called for in The Community of Scholars, Windsor Mountain strove to prepare its students for life beyond the campus without smothering their “creative impulse and attitude for change” by encouraging independent thinking and individual creativity in service to the community. Their educational philosophy, as we’ve heard, stressed individuality and independent thinking, but they were not unbridled libertarians. Uncircumscribed freedom is merely selfishness, they taught, but independence in service to the community is leadership.

One of the principal goals of education, the Bondys affirmed, is to make the student a member of society. “He cannot live as a hermit, and he will not wish to live [as] a hermit if he is not a psychopath,” said Max Bondy. “Through small but necessary restrictions he will learn to curb his own impulses and desires.” The Bondy schools’ aim wasn’t to create conformists, but to make everyone feel they are part of a group. While their students were expected to question authority and “test whatever is offered to them,” each was expected to bring his skills and talents to the service of the community, “to sublimate his ego to the superego represented by the group.” The Bondys not only taught their students to question whatever dicta are handed down to them, but emphasized that, even as adolescents, they are responsible for themselves and that others did not have power over them. “Wake up,” Gertrud Bondy admonished her students, “—not only to criticize but to criticize constructively, and to put your good ideas across to people.” Those with superior educations mustn’t remove themselves from society but participate in it, the Bondys taught. Max Bondy told a reunion of Marienau alumni:
It would indeed be bad if the former members of our school community would live in seclusion, despise the way of life of the “others” and only look forward to the time when they can again be together for some days . . . among like-minded people.

No, you . . . must integrate into the community of the nation. You must not show yourselves to be better than the others, only better educated.

An example of putting this belief into practice could be seen in a tradition common in the ‘60s at Windsor Mountain, according to Jeff Horowitz. The school had little endowment but strove to maintain a scholarship program for deserving students, including many from Africa. Scholarship funds were raised by students who voluntarily worked in the Lenox community by performing services like painting residents’ houses. Besides benefitting the future scholarship students and Windsor Mountain, this practice was also an example of the Bondys' oft-stated precept that helping the community in which you live is a “positive action.”

(Once again I find myself wondering about Windsor Mountain reading assignments. I know that Leo Shapiro was introduced to the German novelist Hermann Hesse, 1877-1962, while he was a student there, and one of the books Shapiro later cited as an inspiration was Magister Ludi—also known as The Glass Bead Game—in which Hesse holds that humanity’s truest calling is the commitment to others rather than cloistered, solipsistic contemplation. I can’t help but see the parallels between the 1943 novel, the author’s last, and one of the Bondys' firmest tenets. Could it have been a book much read on the campuses of Schule Marienau and Windsor Mountain because of the stark similarities between the two philosophies? Could that be why Shapiro felt strongly enough about the book to talk to me about it specifically?)

The textbooks used at Windsor Mountain were conventional, but college-level. Students as young as 13 or 14 (Windsor Mountain started with seventh grade), however, were already reading authors like Goethe, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Nikos Kazantzakis, William Faulkner, Kenneth Fearing, William Golding—authors and works I didn’t read until college (if then)—and Sartre’s Nausea, Hesse’s Siddhartha and Journey to the East, and René Daumal’s Mount Analogue were the elective choices of some. The school’s theater program staged European drama like Max Frisch’s Biedermann and the Firebugs, Maeterlinck’s Pélléas and Mélisande, Giraudoux’s The Enchanted, Chekhov’s The Seagull, Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata, and Yeats’s Purgatory; and many of the Windsor Mountain students “seemed already to be professional artists” in poetry, painting, and theater. (Camp Windsor, a theater camp conducted on the campus, offered continued immersion in the arts during the summer.) Alumnus Shapiro, already a theater enthusiast and occasional visitor to Greenwich Village as a high-schooler, characterized the young artists as Village denizens, only younger.

Windsor Mountain, while offering traditional college-preparatory academics, took a liberal approach to regulating its students’ lives. Heinz Bondy, the headmaster, insisted that the “purpose of a school is not to run smoothly,” but to keep changing and adjusting to find answers. There was no dress code, no rules for leaving campus, no censorship of student publications. Students and faculty alike were subject to the same standards of conduct and there were no restrictions on political activity. The students themselves could suggest courses for the curriculum on the theory that adolescents were responsible, intelligent individuals capable of making reasonable choices about their lives. Teachers there were free to “experiment, improvise, and develop their own styles” and “teach pretty much what they want in any way they wish without interference from the administration.” The faculty even included several professional artists-in-residence, a rarity even now for secondary schools. Like a Black Mountain College for teenagers, the goal of the Windsor Mountain School, which didn’t demand its graduates go on to higher education as long as they pursued goals that made them happy, was to create a community that blurred the boundaries between students and adults and between classroom and life. Two late alumni invoked the name of a famous British experimental school, Summerhill, whose founder declared he’d rather the school “produced a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar," as a kind of paradigm. Windsor Mountain shared this philosophy: Horowitz put it this way: “If you were a happy secretary, that was just fine” and Court stated the school philosophy as: “Live what you’re for, stop fighting what you’re against.”

Windsor Mountain was one of the few private prep schools where the student government had more than an advisory function. The student court had sole authority over suspensions and expulsions and the student council made all the non-academic rules. In the 1969, for instance, the student council voted to allow students to visit the dorms of the opposite gender during the day and early evening. In addition to the sciences, arts, and literature, students in Lenox were also taught about political dissent, Horowitz asserted. Among his schoolmates at Windsor Mountain were several whose parents had suffered the effects of the probes by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), losing jobs and seeing their lives destroyed. The HUAC legacy was a topic of conversation on the campus which, Horowitz attested, “had a strong socialist element.” Far from suppressing social engagement or political activity by its students, Windsor Mountain encouraged it and students were free to participate in political activity if they wished. In the 1960s, the school hosted concerts by such counterculture icons as Pete Seeger, whose daughter Tinya was a student at Windsor Mountain, and Joan Baez. Other prominent parents who sent their children to Windsor Mountain, which was coeducational and had a religiously and racially integrated student body and faculty before the civil rights activism of the ‘60s, included singer Harry Belafonte, jazz musicians Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston, singer-actor Judy Garland, actor Henry Fonda, and civil rights lawyer Clifford Durr and his wife, activist Virginia Foster Durr.

It can’t be denied that, described this way—and much of what I presented here is either directly from the Bondys’ speeches or closely paraphrased from them—the Bondy philosophy sounds more than a little socialistic, utopian, and flower-childlike. If Schule Marienau (which still operates in Dahlem, Lower Saxony) and later Windsor Mountain didn’t slip into Auntie Mame caricature, there’s something of Peter Pan’s “Think lovely thoughts” floating around the Bondy epistemology. Still, there’s also a lot of truth embedded in it: prejudice is, indeed, often based on fear—though ignorance isn’t absent as Max Bondy seemed to believe. And while it might be possible to create a truly friendly atmosphere in a small community such as a boarding school of fewer than 300 students with a low student-faculty ratio, in the larger, more open society at large, or even just a medium-sized public school, the kind of control and intellectual discipline necessary to maintain one would be impossible to attain. Finally, the notion of teaching a young adult “to sublimate his ego to the superego represented by the group” would fly in the face of the ingrained American ideal of “rugged individualism” that has permeated our culture since long before there was the concept of the “Me Generation.” I don’t know how the European schools actually worked, but by the time the reformers got to Lenox, they seem to have succumbed to some practicality. I’m afraid the closest we’re likely to come to the Bondy ideal is the way John Lennon saw it: “Imagine.”

[Many of the facts and quotations from the Bondys in this article are drawn from various speeches of the Bondys published on a website that’s no longer on line (and which I corrected here for obvious spelling or typing mistakes). (The site was maintained by a descendent of Max Bondy’s brother and contained other material, such as genealogical information.) Some of the speeches, translated into English, may have been taken from a German-language book, Max Bondy: Reden an jungen Deutsche (1926-1947) [Speeches to young Germans] (Marienau, Ger.: Schülern der Schule Marienau, 1998), published by the school originally founded by the Bondys. The principal sources, however, were speeches entitled “Philosophy of the School” and “The Objectives of the School and Their Origins.” The first was delivered by Max Bondy clearly at Windsor Mountain (although I can’t tell which campus) and the second by Gertrud, obviously after her husband’s death.]