Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Year One of the Empire

Photo/John Brock

The problem with Year One of the Empire, aside from the fact that it's three acts long, is that it bloodlessly tackles a large American injustice. Elinor Fuchs and Joyce Antler have assembled hundreds of texts for this "play of American politics, war, and protest taken from the historical record," but one begs for some measure of Chuck Mee-like elaboration to this collage, for without some boundary pushing flair, the show flatlines through the paces. At its best, the show is history up on its feet, but those unwilling to read a New Yorker essay about the water cure are unlikely to sit through three hours of back-of-your-seat drama; at its worst, the show features actors who would make your seventh-grade history teacher look good. Due to illness, a stand-in went on for Lee Dobson: understandably, he read lines off a clipboard. (I'm can't say why John Tobias was using a script, only that it looked very unprofessional.) It says a lot about the passivity of the play that these recitations sounded no different from anything else.

Then again, the play was written in 1973 by a critic (Fuchs) and a historian (Antler), so I'll cut them -- and the Metropolitan Playhouse, which is dedicated to producing seasons of classic American dramas (this season's very apt theme is "Virtue") -- some slack. We have a rich theatrical heritage; this play, which makes its New York premiere here, is not a part of that. Fuchs writes that they intended the play to be more "texture" than "interpretation," but while it refuses to take sides, all those sides are pretty much the same, and the play is generally nothing more than a series of recited talking points, monologues clustered, in chronological order, toward the noble end of education.

Alex Roe, both artistic and regular director for this production, does at least keep things bustling: the actors may end up quite sedentary as they speak, but the transitions between scenes and characters keep the stage busy with that American sense of industry, and there's a bit of justice in that the cramped theater forces actors to duck under an overhang in order to climb onto a large scaffolded platform. (It's a reminder that beneath all the rhetoric of men like William McKinley or Theodore Roosevelt, there's simple humanity, first and foremost.)

And there are some very nice performances from actors like J.M. McDonough (as the southern anti-imperialist senator, Benjamin Tillman, or as the upright, but ultimately compromised, Andrew Carnegie), Gregory Jones (as an oily, machinating imperialist, Senator Lodge). In fact, most of the actors have one role that they play very well, like Michael Hardart's T.R., or Michael Durkin's Irish bystander, Mr. Dooley. But the play has upward of fifty characters, and the actors do little to make them distinct, a problem that makes many of the lines seem like mere echoes, when they should be resounding calls to action.

But Year One of the Empire doesn't even succeed in teaching us about America in 1898, and any parallels drawn between our actions in the Philippines then and Iraq now, come right out of our oversaturated imaginations. Whether it's the documentary style, the monotonous presentation, or the lack of dramatic obstacles (the closest the play comes to drama are the political meetings in the Senate), much of the information that dribbles in, dribbles right out. The third act calls for a radical shift from highly personal courtroom testimonials from soldiers confessing to acts of cruelty against the Philippine citizens into a recitation of court-martials that should show the impersonality of the American system, and how easily a government can ignore such abuses of power. But even these deliberately direct sections about reconcentration camps, clear uses of torture, and orders of casual execution, come across as regular text, and by failing to capture this crucial humanity, the play simply goes on talking itself to death.

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