Historical Seduction

“Politics is like music for people with no rhythm.”

It’s a marvelous line, and it serves so many functions in Gus Schulenberg’s new play “The Lesser Seductions of History”, being produced by Flux Theater Ensemble. I have had this argument many times with other theater people, (and my co-producers, on occasion) that people like going to see Micheal Bay movies because they like watching shit explode, people like going to musicals to hear great singers sing great songs, and people like watching plays for the moments of brilliant dialogue. For me, when I hear the writer’s voice instead of the character’s, it doesn’t usually ruin the piece.

And that’s why I like the line so much (and hope I’ve quoted it from memory correctly). Gus is willing to allow his characters to speak with as much charm and alacrity as well crafted characters are meant to, and in this production, the piece is set up so it needn’t contain any apologies for it. There are so many gorgeous chunks of writing, things like “Sometimes life isn’t about you, it’s about what you’re trying to protect” and the answer to “Does it feel good” is, simply and gorgeously, “it feels necessary…”

That first line, it’s a great piece of writing, but it’s a deeply unattractive thing to say, and one that I don’t think any artist would actually believe. And it stinks of truth, but it obviously isn’t, it’s this idea of truth that college types pronounce way before they’ve discovered how colorful the world is, how vague most truths are. Gus is allowing one of his characters to take pride in a pronouncement that the play doesn’t purport to support. For a lover of theater and a lover of words, (and I can only *honestly* claim the first, though I fraternize with the latter) this evening of theater is a lung inflating tight-rope walk, where you can’t help but pay attention for the next lovely turn of phrase, the next self-denying pronouncement.

But it’s much more than that. While it might be compared to “Our Town” (and in my mind, I kept flashing back to Mac Rogers’ “Universal Robots”) the truth is that this piece is so timely that it seems as if it couldn’t have been written before the day I saw it. Almost on the anniversary of President Obama’s election, we now know that Gitmo is open, that the wars rage unabated, that access to abortion is difficult, that access to affordable medical care is even harder, and access to equal rights for all people, regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexual preference is actually impossible right now… we need to talk about this. All of us who said, “Yes we can!”, we need to decide what we were saying yes to, and how much we are willing to sacrifice.

At the end of this play, one of the characters announces, in the Autumn of 1969, that she is pregnant. I was born in May of 1970. These are not my metaphorical forefathers, these are the actual people from whom I was born. And although we had a cultural flirtation with the 60s in 1989 (I remember the 20th anniversary of Woodstock, and everyone I knew had long hair and wore tie-dye), Gus is right, this is the time we have to look at these things.

I don’t want to kill you with spoilers because I really want you to see the play, but there is a moment when one character, speaking of the moon-landing, says “wasn’t all of it worth it?” and the answer, from the playwright and the production, is an unequivocal “YES”. And, referring to a different moment in the play, an hour later I said to my wife, “The man’s hands were broken beyond repair, but we elected a great man to be President. Wasn’t it worth it? Wasn’t the struggle worth it?”

I was talking to a friend about the defeat of gay rights in Maine last week, and he said to me, “I just feel like our generation, and those younger than us, don’t care if you’re gay. Gay marriage will happen because the people who hate gay people are all gonna die off, and I just can’t get too upset about it.” And as I said to him, “You have one kid. I have one kid. Every single one of my Mormon cousins has five, six or seven kids, and they are all being taught to hate homosexuals”, I thought back on this play.

Let me get some theater-slobbing out of the way. After watching this piece, I believe that Heather Cohn is one of the most exciting and smartest directors working right now, and I would add her to a very, very short list of directors that I would trust with *anything*. This is a far more difficult piece than it seemed, and she kept most of the cast on stage for the entire thing, and kept them all incredibly engaged and active. There wasn’t a dishonest moment in the evening, and when so much of it is direct address *driven* (if not actual direct address) it can be so easy to lean back on the standard Children of a Lesser God “this chair is my father” type nonsense, and that’s nowhere in this piece. It feels as if six months of rehearsal went into the creation of this play, and that is a rare feeling in the off-off world.

The ensemble was very strong but I found myself deeply drawn into two of the relationships even more than the others. Ingrid Nordstrom was engrossing as a NASA scientist and awkward lover to Kelly O’Donnel’s pitch perfect intellectual radical. These two women, both focused too much on their endeavors and too little on their love for each other – they were playing out the larger themes of the evening, but they never played any moment with a nod or a wink. They were utterly absorbed in the truth of each moment… God, it was so lovely.

And then, Micheal Davis and Raushanah Simmons, as brother and sister who are each distorted and chewed up by the great fight that was that decade, these two are an utter revelation. It could be the music, it could be my own sister and her horrible history, and how much of it I held myself responsible for, but their story made me feel like I had been sucked through a jet engine and dumped in a bucket. I would watch these two actors do almost anything.

My only criticism is that I didn’t really like the costumes choices. For an articulate and surprising evening, everything felt like… well, like what we all do in the off-off world. The set was limited in scope, but the director’s brilliance overcame the bareness of the space, the costumes just didn’t do anything to further the ideas in the show. And, for the record, it’s assinine for me to make this criticism, I think two of the characters in our last production were wearing my shirts.

The sound design and the light design were fantastic. Particularly the choices in music, the jazz, the piano stuff, the pop songs in the background. And even though when I later thought about it, the lighting design seemed a bit on the nose, I have to stick with my original thoughts on it while I was in the space, and I just loved it. There’s an effect at the end, at the climax of the play, that is worth three times your admission, and the lights go a long way toward making that work.

This is all on stolen time, this blog, and I wish so much I could take all the time I should talking about what a wonderful show this is. You will simply have to go, and write to me and tell me everything I missed.