LETTERS TO EDITOR
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By Kathryn Osenlund
Un-American is billed as " Join Senator McCarthy on his wild romp through the private lives of ordinary Americans." It is a pastiche of the 50s with the HUAC hearings as the focus and TV as its central motif.
A young couple becomes engrossed in the hearings as a new TV set dominates their new tract home. Their activities and reactions form the play's backdrop as witnesses testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. We are shown the lengths some went to in order to avoid incriminating themselves or implicating others-- stonewalling, sidestepping, questioning. These brave responses in the face of baiting and bullying, are balanced by breezy capitulations. A brief nod is given to cooperation by some who agreed with the proceedings. The play raises the question: What does it mean to be Un-American, and what does it mean to be American?
The actors all play a number of challenging, conflicting roles. Paul Nolan is both Joe McCarthy and Dashiell Hammett. Frank X plays both sides of the divide as J. Parnell Thomas, chair of the 1947 HUAC hearings, and the beleaguered poet, Langston Hughes, a victim of intimidation. Sally Mercer is Sen. Dirksen, Lillian Hellman, and blind Lady Justice (who speaks in Latin). Patrick Doran is the young suburbanite Mr. Jones, and also Ring Lardner. Sara Pauley plays Mrs. Jones in addition to other parts. Artistic Director Charles McMahon assumes several roles including Roy Cohn and Pete Seeger.
All the acting is terrific and Michael Brophy's direction is bracing. Lantern Theater Company could teach other theater companies a thing or two about paying close attention to movement, detail, and transitions.
Un-American was written by the Infinite Monkey Writers' Collaborative, composed of Justin Coffin, Amy Gorbey, and Caryn Hunt. Theirs is an interesting approach to writing, structure, and staging. The play operates in different arenas, and the styles are not integrated. The serious plight of HUAC victims, with "real" acting and actual testimony, is played straight against a full battery of comedy-sketch level shenanigans.
Liberties have been taken in the arrangement and blending of time, and in the focus on television. For instance, it is not made crystal clear that only the end of the second set of hearings was televised, in 1954, the year the witch hunt finally ended.
A few stand-out moments: In an effective technique which shows time passing during a long testimony-- lights momentarily dim as the character stops speaking and mouths the words. Clock hands on multiple TV sets spin. Then lights brighten again as he continues his story, presumably later in time. At one point Dashiell Hammett is interrogated by his own characters. Another inspired moment finds a scene replayed as Langston Hughes reflects and figures out that the committee's "gotcha" already has happened to him.
There are eerie, wafting resonances as questions about our freedoms hang in the air. Despite Welch's still memorable "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" heard in the background of the production, there are people to this day who don't think Tail-gunner Joe was wrong. And challenges to our civil liberties are once again on the table.
Un-American spins wackily out of control at the end, with an outrageous Jefferson-ex-Machina lecturing McCarthy on the demise of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The play careens from history lesson to entertainment and back again mixing the agenda, both cautionary and fun. Both cautionary and fun... is that possible?
This World Premiere, which has a regular run at St. Stephen's Theater from Sept 3 to Oct 3 is also an offering of the Philly Fringe which ends on Sept 18.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. Click image to buy.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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