Monday, October 24, 2011

Waiting for Lefty

Ensemble initiates its new home with classic WAITING FOR LEFTY

In this era of Wall Street sit-ins and the politicizing of unions, as represented by Kasich’s administration’s passing of a non-negotiation bill, a return to examining the reason for, and the rise of unionism, is appropriate. Probably no play better looks at the subject of U. S. union confrontation then Clifford Odets’ WAITING FOR LEFTY.

Based on the true story of the 1934 unionization of New York City cab drivers, the organizing efforts, dubbed by opponents as “the promotion of the communist revolution in America,” is a vivid example of “agit-prop” theatre. Agit-Prop was a form of writing with the intent of agitating, propagandizing and spreading ideas, which was popularized by Bertolt Brecht and U. S. social action writers, such as Clifford Odets.

Odets’s writing style, as is that of others of his era, is somewhat outdated by modern standards, due to its stylized language and over-dramatized situations, but it is appropriate to highlight the rage that was seething during the depression in the United States. This was an era of using the power of drama and the other arts to push a specific political cause and create what has commonly been dubbed in drama history as “people’s theatre.” And, since theatre is representative of the era from which it comes, it is only appropriate that Odets’ words spew forth and be heard in this, a decade of parallel social unrest.

The story centers on a hotly-contested strike vote in which a corrupt union leader (Harry Fatt) tries to discourage the membership from walking out. His motives are anything but pure, and definitely not in the interest of the membership. In a series of 8 vignettes, the tale is told through the words of union members. The climax of the play comes when word arrives that Lefty Costello, the leader of the strike faction, has been killed. This pushes the assemblage over the top, and cries of, “strike,” “strike,” “strike” are heard as the play comes to a shattering conclusion.

In the analogues of theatre history, “Waiting for Lefty is seen as an important dramatic work that offers historical evidence of the social power and aspirations of theatre.

Ensemble’s production, being performed on a thrust stage in their new home in the reconfigured gym of the former Coventry Elementary School, lends itself to the up-close and in-your-face format of the script.

The performance, under the direction of Ian Hintz, is generally excellent. The pacing is even, the idea development clear, the use of graphics to bridge the various eras of history are creative, and the music is appropriate. The ending, however, which didn’t quite build to the desired climax, could have been more frenetic and emotionally keyed, adding to the cry for change, for action.

The large cast, only two of whom are professional actors, does a very creditable job of generally creating the right atmosphere. Especially strong performances were presented by Skip Corris, Layla Schwartz and James Rankin.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: WAITING FOR LEFTY is an important American play which reflects not only the depression era, but is relevant in today’s chaotic times. Odets’ script gets a strong performance at Ensemble Theatre.