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A CurtainUp Review
History of the World
This interactive performance piece now running at the Living Theatre has much good-will and a pleasing spirit. However, instead of capturing the stuff of history, it turns into a bit of a snooze.
The play is mysterious in the manner of a detective story. It prompts participants to investigate those who have burned their names into history, and then to insinuate themselves into that particular historical moment. As it progresses spectators will be asked an entire paradigm of questions that revolve around the notion: “Who are you in history?”
Fortunately History of the World is more than a pageant of the greats. It ferrets out those who witnessed or were catalysts of historical events (Remember the slave who poisoned Socrates?). It begins at the dawn of civilization, takes you to the present-day (“Occupy Wall Street” is the rallying cry for today’s rebels!), and ultimately projects you into the future (“Who are you in the Beautiful Non-Violent Anarchist Revolution yet to come?”).
As you traverse the play’s loop, you are guided by a performer who takes you by the hand but sometimes leave you to step into the dramatic action. The production ranges over the entire space of the black box theater with most participants sitting on the floor. The no-frills set is essentially an arrangement of platforms which moves and changes from scene to scene. And you're required to step lively to get out of the path of these history-on-wheels apparatuses.
The play’s major problem is that it presents the luminaries as if they were firecrackers on the Fourth of July. You do recognize the greats, but it’s a recognition of cliché not of realism. If that sounds facetious, it’s rather meant to encourage Off-Broadway legend Malina to refashion the work and give it more depth. Each historical personage thus gets the equivalent of a sound byte to express his (or her) world view to the audience. No sooner do you peep through the curtain of history, than the history-maker fades away.
. The one exception is the scene with Sacco and Vanzetti, who really pack an emotional punch. These famouse men are depicted as regular Joes, speaking from the heart as they go to the electric chair. In contrast to the depictions of the nobility and world leaders at their executions, these two Italian immigrants speak about their fate, if not with levity, with remarkable candor -- or as they simply put it: “If it had not been for these things,/ I might have lived out my life/ Talking at street corners/ To scorning men.” Their authentic humility is palpable here.
What this production lacks most is theatrical “edge.” You are supposed to be experiencing history (the death of Socrates, Marie Antoinette en route to the guillotine, Florence Nightingale nursing soldiers on the battlefields) in the here-and-now. But it’s really history rehashed, and not remembered with any fresh definition.
The point of History of the World is that history has a present dimension. But with all the high-flown rhetoric being tossed about one has to wonder why Abraham Lincoln wasn’t incorporated into the work. After all, he is the one who in his “House Divided” speech so cogently wrote “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”
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