Although it’s rarely, if ever, remarked upon, William Shakespeare was as preoccupied with statecraft as he was by stagecraft. A recurring Shakespearean theme is the toppling of bad rulers by a more righteous wing of the elite, which seeks to set things right. This faction fighting leitmotif runs through many of the Bard’s epics, including: Hamlet, Richard III, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar and but of course MacBeth.
When I was a little boy my avant-garde father took the family to Greenwich Village to see a daring stage satire called MacBird! In this 1967 work playwright Barbara Garson combined plot elements of MacBeth with the JFK assassination and its aftermath, positing the delightfully conspiratorial notion that LBJ (MacBird) and Lady Bird Johnson (Lady MacBird) liquidated Kennedy (Ken O’Dunc) in order to become president. Thusly fell the house of Camelot! Wickedly heady subversive stuff indeed.
One of our best living political playwrights, Donald Freed is no slouch in the conspiracy theory department either. Along with Dalton “Hollywood Ten” Trumbo and Mark “Rush To Judgment” Lane, Freed co-wrote Executive Action, the first theatrically released feature alleging that President Kennedy was eliminated with extreme prejudice by a right-wing cabal. Note that this 1973 movie, a conspiracy buff’s delight that co-starred Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Will Geer, was released almost two decades before Oliver Stone’s expose, JFK. Freed likewise co-wrote a feature — Secret Honor, starring Philip Baker Hall and directed by Robert Altman in the appropriately Orwellian year of 1984 — dealing with Richard Nixon’s covert actions more than a decade before Stone’s Nixon. Freed went on to create the Gen. Noriega thriller Devil’s Advocate.
In his new play Tomorrow Freed extrapolates elements from MacBeth and its murderous lust for power, interchanging them with the 2000 presidential election’s Bush v. Gore debacle. Radio broadcasts and dialogue comment on the electoral farce wherein the loser of the popular vote was awarded the presidency by high court justices (including some appointed by W.’s own father!) in our so-called democracy. The lead character denounces this as “the Supreme Court putsch!” In this sense, along with Garson, Giuseppi Verdi (who composed an operatic version of MacBeth circa 1847 with lots of overwrought music) and Akira Kurosawa (whose 1957 Throne of Blood was a samurai screen version of MacBeth), Freed is among the major re-interpreters of the Bard’s so-called “Scottish play.”
Tomorrow is, of course, about much more than “MacBush” — Freed’s newest play is nothing less than a meditation upon theatre itself. In this three-character, two-act play Laura Keating (Jenn Robbins, who has appeared in an L.A. production of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July) is a 30-year-old movie star who yearns to be more than a mere celebrity: She aspires to become a true artiste. Cast as Lady MacBeth in a stage production on Broadway and the West End, Laura seeks out the 100-year-old Abigail Booth, a grande dame of the American thee-a-tuh who has trod the boards with John Barrymore, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando, et al. This is attested to by the many photos and posters that adorn the walls of Abby’s acting studio in what had been the guest house of the West Hollywood estate (known as the “Garden of Allah”) supposedly built by the Ukrainian silent screen star Alla Nazimova. This is significant as long before Stella Adler and her Marlon, Nazimova was the first student of Stanislavsky to “go Hollywood,” and in 1923 she played the title character in the scandalous Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s Play.
It just so happens that the actress who portrays the centenarian thespian is, in a bit of canny casting, the redoubtable Salome Jens, herself a veteran actress of standing who has appeared in plays by Jean Genet, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and in Freed’s Eichmann drama White Crow and what Backstage called the Strindberg-like How Shall We Be Saved (which co-starred Mitchell Ryan, who was in the audience the night I saw Tomorrow). I previously reviewed Jens’ depiction of Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, in the Met Theatre production of On Holy Ground. Although during Tomorrow Abigail is at times ensconced — or rather enthroned — in a regal chair befitting the queen of the theatre, unlike Ground (wherein Jens was statically chair-bound during the entire performance) Freed’s Prometheus is unbound and treads the boards as she rehearses Laura, rails against Bush, and so on.
This is fitting as Abby is Tomorrow’s most intriguing character and she should be part of the play in motion, the mise-en-scène, not just a stationary prop, plopped in a chair. In addition to being a Helen Hayes-like doyenne of the stage, Abigail may belong to one of America’s royal dynasties of acting, descended from those mid-19th century brothers of the boards, Edwin, Junius Brutus and John Wilkes Booth, the Confederate sympathizer who assassinated Pres. Lincoln at, appropriately, Ford’s Theatre — a year after the trio had performed in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Talk about life imitating art!!! (This reminds me of Spencer Tracy’s explanation as to why actors should refrain from politics: “Remember who shot Lincoln.”)
Abby’s first name, too, is resonant of theatrical lore, alluding to Dublin’s illustrious Abbey Theatre, aka the National Theatre of Ireland. This, too, is a significant piece of the play’s puzzle, as a recurring theme of Tomorrow is the fact that the United States of Am-nesia has no national theatre. In particular, Abigail and her nephew (hmmm — or is he?), Jamie Booth (the Welsh-born Geoffrey Forward, who established the L.A. Shakespeare company and co-starred with my old friend, the late Fijian actor Manu Tupou, in Othello), have failed in the prodigious task of a creating an American national theatre. As one of the characters remarks, when the ancient Greeks lost their theatre they also lost their democracy (an intriguing point I’ve heard Freed repeat offstage and which I’d like to learn more about).
Tomorrow will be best and most appreciated by hardcore fans of live performance and skillful acting, with crisp, bristling dialogue delivered by expert tongues, deftly directed by Damian Cruden, who trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. As Abigail and Jamie take turns teaching their acolyte Laura how to play Lady MacBeth, there is a play within a play, as the drama alternates between Shakespeare’s Scottish play and the modern day bard’s tale. Not only do we flashback to MacBeth’s murderous thugs — perfect progenitors of the bloodthirsty, election-nabbing Bush administration usurpers (Get thee to a piggery!), whose war crimes against humanity stagger the imagination and really made MacBeth’s regicide pale in comparison — but to other aspects of Shakespearian thought.
In Act Two Abby recites MacBeth’s lines to the Doctor about his sleepless, guilt wracked wife: “Cure her of that. Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, Raze out the written troubles of the brain And with some sweet oblivious antidote Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff Which weighs upon the heart?” Well, what is this if not the Stratford-upon-Avon playwright’s prescription for creating psychoanalysis, some 250-plus years before Freud?
As we Yanks have no national theatre to speak of, Tomorrow is a transcontinental, trans-Atlantic co-production involving the York Theatre Royal, Rogue Machine and Skylight Theatre Company. (Much ado about a 60-ish seat house!)The intricate set design, with all of those pictures of Uta Hagan, Miss Julie Harris, etc., which transport Laura with paroxysms of ecstasy to the realms of high art, were painstakingly collected for this production, according to John Perrin Flynn, Rogue Machine’s Artistic Director. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design adeptly interweaves radio reports about the Bush v. Gore catastrophe with the live action onstage.
Your plot spoiler adverse reviewer won’t reveal what happens in the denouement, but as the stage goes black lighting designer Jeff McLaughlin’s halo illumines Queen Abby’s shrine-like throne. One could almost hear the Bard cry out across the ages:
“Out, out damn spotlight!”
Tomorrow is being performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through April 21 at the Skylight Theatre Complex, 1816 ½ N. Vermont, L.A., CA 90027. For more info: (702)582-8587; www.ktcla.com.
Monday, 1 April 2013