Monday, July 27, 2015

Tony Kushner's "iHo"--a long play that captivates at Shaw

“Revolutionary movements attract those who are not good enough for established institutions as well as those who are too good for them.”  (G. Bernard Shaw)

The Mandate of the Shaw Festival is to “produce plays from and about his [Shaw’s] era and contemporary plays that share Shaw’s provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity.”   Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” is a perfect example of a contemporary script that fulfills that mission.

The title was inspired by Shaw’s pamphlet, “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.”  Though it doesn’t try to explain or build on Shaw’s pamphlet, the publication’s topics of socialism and capitalism are central to the play’s core.

The rest of the title alludes to “Science and Health” the book written by Mary Baker Eddy, which serves as the central text of the Christian Science religion.  The teachings of Eddy, and the book itself, though not central to the play, are alluded to in the script.

Kushner’s plays often center on Judaism, politics, gay rights and the metaphysical world.  A declared liberal, he often examines social justice.  “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” which is referred to by The Shaw as “iHo,” contains references to all of the usual Kushner themes.

Kushner received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play “Angels in America:  A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”  The openly gay playwright and scriptwriter, has also received The National Medal of Arts, as well as several Tony Awards and an Emmy. 

Kushner in a 2011 interview indicated that the title of his almost four-hour play centers on the intrusion of the spiritual into the political and economic world.  He indicated that not this, nor any of his plays, is meant to be politically illuminating though his works contain many references and speeches about these topics.  (To hear the interview go to:
“Writers and Company”  September 25, 2011.)

“Iho” is saga about a big American family in 2007.   A big Italian American family which contains lesbians, homosexuals, an African American, an Asian, a laborer, teacher, lawyer, former nun, and a theology professor.  This dysfunctional family unit is headed by the patriarch, Gus Marcantonio, a former longshoreman and  union organizer with strong left-leaning tendencies, has been behaving oddly.   

At the stage where we meet him, Gus is disillusioned, confused and defeated by the 21st century.  He is aware of his feeling of having lived false dreams, of seeing his life and that of his children, caught in a conundrum of historical forces not being on his or their side.  He questions revolutions, the consequences of compromise, evolutionary socialism (a movement advocating political, religious and/or economic reform), though he has lived his life dedicated to the accomplishment of change.

Into his Brooklyn brownstone converge his sister, a former nun, who has been staying with him for a year, his three children and their spouses, ex-spouses and lovers.  Questions abound:   Should he sell the brownstone?  How are the various factions within the family dealing with infidelity and conflicting political and religious views?  Can they or should they stop Gus from committing suicide?

The dark comedy uses humor and exposition to examine the various aspects of a family unit and what happens when individual needs conflict with group process.  It probes a world of abandoned dreams.  It showcases political fantasies and what happens when those dreams come up against life’s realities.  Kushner seems to propose the idea of the perfectibility of the world as being a religious concept, not a political one.

The staging is creative.  Pairs and trios square up to verbally slug it out.  The whole stage often explodes in talk and counter-talk, overlapping rants.  It seems that no one is listening to anyone else.  That is, no one except the mesmerized audience! 

The cast is excellent.  Jim Mezon puts on the persona of Gus Marcantonio at the start of the production and wears it throughout.  The character is complex, requiring complete reality and sensitivity to the motivations that cause someone to contemplate and attempt suicide.  Mezon accomplishes that completely.

Steven Sutcliffe is pathetically convincing as Gus’s gay, oldest son, Pill, caught in his obsessive needs for a young prostitute and the requirements of being married to a man who has given up so much for him.   Andre Sills effectively portrays Paul, Pill’s husband. 

Empty, Gus’s labor lawyer lesbian daughter, gets a strong focused presentation by Kelli Fox.  Her pregnant partner, Maeve, is clearly developed by Diana Donnelly.

Both Gray Powell, as Vito, the youngest son, and Julie Jasmine Chen, as his wife, are completely believable.

Fiona Reid, as Clio, Gus’s pacifistic sister, is physically and verbally absent, making her right on target as the former nun. 

Thom Marriott (Empty’s ex-husband) and Julie Martell, as Michelle, the wife of Gus’s former union member, play their vital roles with a clear focus.

Peter Hartwell’s complex era correct set works well.

One of the hallmarks of the audience’s involvement in a production are the discussions which take place during intermissions.  At “IHo,” the time was spent by many discussing the play:  Good sign!

Capsule judgement:  Director Eda Holmes has honed “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” into a  well acted, well staged production that grabs and holds an audience’s attention.  This is a thinking person’s play, not aimed at the “I go to the theater to have a good time and get away from my troubles and that of others” crowd.

What: “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures”
Where:  Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre
When:  July 11-October 10, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or