I was struck in seeing “The Great Society,” which depicts President Lyndon Johnson’s turbulent full term in office, how Robert Shenkkan’s play represents political theater in more ways than one.
Now, search the news these days for the phrase “political theater” and it is used as an accusation by people on the political right: The young people demonstrating to demand something be done for climate change, the antagonists say, are “props in political theater.” Above all, they label the impeachment inquiry of President Trump as “political theater”
We live in such a polarized time in our history that we can’t even agree on the meaning of words – as the theater artist known as Dyalekt pointed out in his (political) show, which I saw last week, The Museum of Dead Words. But I suppose political theater has long meant different things to different people. Political theater on stage is as old as theater. The Ancient Greek satires are said to have influenced public opinion, and Shakespeare is full of the politics of his day. The British critic Michael Billington recently named the Bard’s “Coriolanus” as number one on his list of favorite political theater of all time (or, since he’s British, his favourite political theatre.)
Political theater is currently happening on and off the stage in New York – and throughout the world. London, for example, is reportedly full of new political plays: In “Hansard” by Simon Woods, a couple during the Thatcher era bicker over politics in a way that critics see as commenting on the current Brexit polarization; “A Very Expensive Poison” a chlling satire by Lucy Prebble, features an actor portraying Russian Vladimir Putin and riffs on the 2006 murder in the UK by radioactive poison of the onetime Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko; “Faith Hope and Charity” by Alexander show the people desperate for a meal who gather at a community center that may soon be shut down.
New York has always been a center of political theater – both on stage, and off stage, and a hybrid of the two. Both Arian Moayed and Robert Schenkkan have dramatized politicized issues using verbatim transcripts — in, respectively, “The Courtroom,” about a deportation case, and “The Investigation,” about the Mueller Report.
That’s why I Tweeted this a week ago
The non-verbatim transcript of call between Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky, in which Trump urges him to investigate Biden.
How long will it take before a theater artist — @ROBERTSCHENKKAN? @ArianMoayed? — produces a staged reading of it?https://t.co/gVxdPlzuvz pic.twitter.com/1ywBOjl7d1
— New York Theater (@NewYorkTheater) September 25, 2019
“The Great Society” both embodies and depicts political theater.
There is the speech that Brian Cox as LBJ gives near the end of the play, which is verbatim announce that Johnson delivered in 1968:
“I feel strongly that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
Since the play opened on Broadway exactly a week after the launch of the impeachment inquiry against the 45th president, it’s hard to avoid wondering whether The Great Society is intentionally designed to offer a contrast between the two men. After all, it’s impossible to imagine Trump voluntarily saying a single word from that announcement.
But the play also includes something of a subplot in the ways that Martin Luther King Jr. (portrayed by Grantham Coleman, pictured above in a clash in Chicago) pushed for civil rights, and especially for voting rights. He did so by….political theater: “We have to up the stakes. We’ve got to make people aware.” Political theater makes people aware. Even LBJ saw that (at least in the play): “We don’t disagree on tactics, Dr. King, just on timing.”
There are other plays about politics, and politicians coming up this month, such as Bella Bella, Harvey Fierstein’s solo show about Rep. Bella Abzug
October 2019 New York Theater Openings
New York Theater Quiz for September
The Week in New York Theater Reviews
The Great Society…is a sequel to All The Way, the Tony-winning play that was on Broadway five years ago (and is currently being shown on Netflix.) It starred Brian Cranston and chronicled the first year of LBJ’s presidency, starting in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and ending with LBJ’s election. The new play offers some of the same pleasures. It too employs a big cast — 19 actors portraying some 50 characters — for a sweeping lesson in history and politics. It is smoothly directed, competently acted, and often fascinating, But it is ultimately less satisfying than All The Way.
Those for whom theater is their religion are more likely to appreciate “Why?,” a 70-minute theater piece about theater that, aptly, begins with a whimsically modified Biblical tale: God proclaims “There shall be theater” on the seventh day, because the humans had gotten bored on the day of rest….Written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, “Why?” is less a play than a kind of elliptical lecture-demonstration of, and paean to, the beauty and danger of the theatrical arts…more
The same playwright who gave us “The Father” with a demented Frank Langella and “The Mother” with a depressed and possibly deranged Isabelle Huppert now offers us…dead Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins? Or maybe just one of them is dead? Or maybe neither?… Maybe we’re the ones who are dead – or wish we were by the end of “The Height of The Storm.”….
Both British actors of great renown… offer memorable moments of emotional power and clarity…But their performances were not enough compensation for sitting through Zeller’s trickster writing, which feels progressively less like a sensibility and more like a shtick.
Ethereal, stylized and visually stunning, Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi’s production of “Antigone,” at the Park Avenue Armory through October 6, fuses several theatrical traditions, some of them thousands of years old, some newly created.
Twenty-nine performers, ghostly in flowing white kimonos, glide slowly and gracefully through the ankle-deep water that covers the stage of the Armory’s massive Drill Hall. Placed around them in this pool of shimmering water (made with 18,000 gallons of water) are boulders, meant to resemble a Buddhist stone garden. This is the setting in which Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old play unfolds….more
The artist known as Dyalekt (pronounced dialect) greets us looking like a young Allen Ginsberg in his Yippie Uncle Sam phase, holding up a bucket labeled “dead words,” asking us for words that we don’t think work anymore. He will be our rapping guide to The Museum of Dead Words, which is not really a museum and not really about dead words. It is a show about 11 red-hot words that are used in combat rather than conversation….more
Work in Progress: A Hill on Which to Drown
Three generations of black, queer theater artists – actor André De Shields, 73; playwright Kevin R. Free, who is 50; and director Zhailon Levingston, 25 — are collaborating on a play about a black, queer character inspired by August Wilson’s Century Cycle. From the very first Wilson play he ever saw, a community theater production of “Fences” in the early 1990s, Free has had the same two reactions to Wilson’s epic 10-play cycle, each play taking place in a different decade in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
“I love the productions I’ve seen, but have never really felt a part of the world,” Free says. “The Cycle is genius, beautiful and resonant, but it features no fictional LGBTQIA* characters.”
So Free set out to create one.
The Week in New York Theater News
Here’s the stellar cast just announced for Sondheim/Weidman Assassins at
Classic Stage Company next Spring:
“Girl from the North Country,” an Off-Broadway musical set to a score of Bob Dylan songs, will feature Jay O. Sanders when it moves to Broadway, opening in March, along with original cast members Todd Almond, Jeannette Bayardelle, Matthew Frederick Harris, Caitlin Houlahan, Robert Joy, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason, Ben Mayne, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Colton Ryan, John Schiappa, Kimber Elayne Sprawl, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams and Mare Winningham
Theater artist Annie Dorsen is one of this year’s 26 winners of the
MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grants
“Thanks to The Politician on Netflix, Marie’s Crisis Is suddenly the hottest piano bar on TV” (Is there much competition?)
A look at Patreon and its founder musician/techie Jack Conte
Here’s how Patreon works: You, a creator in search of funds, keep producing and distributing things wherever you usually do—Medium, SoundCloud, YouTube, whatever. But you also set up a Patreon page and direct your fans there in the hope that they will become your “patrons,” committing themselves to recurring monthly payments. (Unlike on Kickstarter, where supporters pitch in toward the completion of an individual project, on Patreon the money goes toward a creator’s ongoing output and livelihood generally.) In turn, Patreon encourages creators to treat these patrons less like charitable benefactors and more like members who have purchased admission to a club—entitling them to exclusive perks, whether it’s gated chat sessions, bonus content, or early peeks at a work in progress.
The 17th annual Broadway Stands Up For Freedom, benefit concert for ACLU/NYCLU, on Monday October 28 at The Town Hall, will have the theme “My Body, My Business” and feature performances by Kelli O’Hara, Phillipa Soo, Montego Glover, Eva Noblezada among others. The concert is directed by Tony-winning director Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown).
Jessye Norman, regal American soprano, has died at 74
🙏🏾❤️ https://t.co/ztcTRKa19V pic.twitter.com/JIyE46wL9q
— Audra McDonald (@AudraEqualityMc) October 1, 2019