Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Lesser Seductions of History

Photos/Tyler G. Hicks-Wright

Despite being flush with the rich history and presence of the times-they-are-a-changin' 60s, August Schulenburg's The Lesser Seductions of History is, wisely, not a political play. After all, as he points out, "Politics is like music for people who have no rhythm," and boy, does that Schulenburg have rhythm. There's a thick heartbeat of communal purpose--he wrote this play for his company, Flux--, a steady patter of lyrical oratory (think Martin Luther King Jr.)--which is well matched by Heather Cohn's simple (yet complicated) direction, and a healthy dose of wit, the sort that elevates an Our Town-like lecture into an experience.

As it turns out, Schulenburg needs every bit of his talent, for this is his most ambitious play yet, a large ensemble work that is narrated by One (Candice Holdorf) who, at times, goes by the name Progress and whose "great enemy" is love. Epic, indeed, especially for a show that takes place entirely in interconnected vignettes, spanning a ten-year period. But it works, thanks to the narrator's insistence that we use our imaginations to invest as much in this play as these eleven actors have. (A timeline is included in each program, specifically for younger audience members, like myself.) It also works thanks to Schulenburg's ability to self-edit: the show seems like a short two-and-a-half hours, focused as it is on moment after gripping moment.

"Here's where it happens," says One, watching Barry (Matthew Archambault) throw heater after heater to his younger brother Bobby (Jason Paradine), too young and headstrong to consider the lasting damage he's doing to his arm. Here, too: the moment when Tegan (Kelly O'Donnell), who has started a newspaper called The Call (in honor of Kennedy's "Ask Not..." speech), meets a female rocket scientist named Anisa (Ingrid Nordstrom), falling for her at a small diner, though its not for another four years that they'll be able to tell one another. But also in the way George and Martha (Michael Davis and Raushanah Simmons), driving to a new life, wind up in different worlds, all because George was given the opportunity to play piano as a child, while Martha had to fight for her chances--especially after being raped. The doomed look between newly married Marie and Isaac (Tiffany Clementi and Jake Alexander), as she realizes his liberally wandering eye will never settle for her and her religion, or the way Marie's relative, Lee (Isaiah Tanenbaum), resigns himself to settling only for his drawings, trapped trying to find a way to communicate. And then there's Anisa's estranged, alcoholic sister, Lizzie (Christina Shipp), all but ready to throw herself off a bridge before Bobby--who is in training to be a doctor--convinces her to throw her problems off instead.

Weaving in and out of the larger contexts of the 60s, these can be seen either as small moments or big moments, depending on whose perspective you view them from, and Schulenburg's greatest asset is--dare I pun it--his fluxtuating narrative, which presents it as everything all at once. That's how we get to the really Big Moments--the ones that make this play, that make you think, that make for capitalized Theater--for instance, when the characters, expressing their feelings for one another, speak only the words of "I Have a Dream." Or when Cohn toys with the ten hanging bulbs--one for each character--in order to shoot backward through time, reminding us of those butterflying, domino-like choices we make, all those minute Ifs that become a present-day Is.

There are moments where Schulenburg struggles with his big ideas--and that's as it should be; that's how you know the ideas are big enough. What's important is that his writing almost always manages to keep those ideas on their feet; what's important is that he never loses those quiet, tear-soaked moments, as when Tegan sends Anise a message about the moon landing--"contact light"--or when George and Marie share a memory of Isaac. And while this review is intentionally vague, Cohn's direction--which has to juggle a lot of pieces at once--is always clear about the intents and beauty of things as simple as our presence. (And that's no lesser seduction, that's a full-bodied affair.)

"None of us knows," acknowledges The Lesser Seductions of History. "But some of us believe." And thankfully, some playwrights know enough to still believe.