Saturday, October 23, 2004

A Bright Room Called Day (Cleveland Public Theatre)

Overstated but relevant Tony Kushner play at CPT

One of the characters in Tony Kushner’s play, ‘A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY,’ now being staged at Cleveland Public Theatre intones, “"Overstatement is your friend. Use it.” This is Kushner's writing device...overstating and continuing to overstate until the message is firmly implanted in the listener’s mind.

Kushner, the author of the epic ‘ANGELS IN AMERICA’ is noted for his poetic verbiage and his daunting soliloquies. Some viewers find him to be tedious and preachy, others hang on every word. No matter your view of his writing, one must admit that he takes on causes with directness and enthusiasm.

“A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY’ is set in the New York City of now and Berlin of then. As the play opens we find Zillah Katz (Allison Hernan), a Long Island Jew who is disenchanted with the current American political scene, listening to television reports of the race for the 2004 Presidency. She is surrounded by masses of research. In a series of flash-forward and flashback scenes, we see what happened in 1932 and 1933 as Hitler came into power and Kushner’s view of how Hitler’s actions parallel to the US political situation.

When playwright Tony Kushner first put the words "We are perched at the brink of a great historical crime" in the mouth of one of his play’s characters, he was taking his stand against what he perceived to be international and domestic crimes committed by Reagan-era America in the mid-1980s.

As explained by David Templeton in a review of a California Bay area production of the play,“Today, in post-9-11 America, such comparisons seem ludicrously naive; at the same time, they manage to appear unnervingly prophetic. As daily reports appear in our newspapers revealing a parade of war crimes in Iraq; as the Supreme Court considers whether the U.S. government's state-sanctioned disappearing of its own citizens is constitutional; as Americans passively debate the efficacy of the Patriot Act, while hard-fought freedoms are eradicated beneath our very noses, the numerous social and political harms brought about during the Reagan years seem like a mere warm-up for what many see as the "great historical crimes" of the Bush era.”

To make the move into the present, with the permission of Kushner, the CPT production team has updated the play so that it contains the same message of warning and prediction of dire consequences if George W. Bush is re-elected as President.

The production qualities of the CPT staging are generally excellent. Trad Burns’ set thrusts itself out like a dagger into the audience. We are each “stabbed” by its presence. The fragmentation, which harks back to the theatrical movement entitled Alienation, makes the audience realize that we are seeing what was, but need to be aware of what is. The characters speak, but they are really representing each of us. Theatrical devices being used include projected titles to lead us through the maze of disconnected scenes, and a narrator, Zillah, sitting in a separate set installed in front of the playing area. Again, the disconnectedness doesn’t let the listener sit back and let the words wash over. The theatricalism means to alert that the words should be heeded.

Director Lester Thomas Shane has well staged the play, but needed to quicken the pace. And, since he had Kushner’s permission to alter the script, he needed to cut some of the extraneous characters and overly long speeches. The sit is very long. He also needed to work with the actors on projection. Lines were lost to the fly gallery and backstage due to the openness of the set and characters being placed with their backs to the audience.

Allison Hernan is excellent as the driven Zillah, filled with rage and angst. Jill Levin seemed tentative in her lines, but developed the fragility of the play’s central character. Randy Rollison is totally believable as a frustrated and revenge-filled Hungarian film maker. Tracee Patterson finely tunes the role of an apolitical actress who, in spite of her fame and connections, is forced to flee the country. Charles F. Kartali gives an enthralling portrayal of the devil. His sneering and smirking is unnerving, and whether intentional or not, makes one think of President Bush’s facial expressions during the first debate of this election season.

On the other side of the acting coin, Michael Seevers, Jr. is unbelievable as Baz, a homosexual who once had the gun and the opportunity to kill Hitler. Bernice Bolek never establishes a characterization as an old ghost-like woman who appears and vanishes throughout the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Kushner’s play will incite strong feelings depending on the viewer’s political viewpoints. It is very preachy, but as history demonstrates, and this production reminds us, whenever we find ourselves perched at the brink of great national calamity, a bit of preaching is maybe not only tolerable, but perhaps necessary.