In 1965, satirical songsmith Tom Lehrer penned “Who’s Next?,” the second in his triptych of nuclear-war ditties. Cataloging nations with atomic capability, Lehrer croons, “So Israel’s getting tense/Wants one in self-defense./’The Lord’s our shepherd,’ says the psalm./But just in case, we’d better get a bomb.” Unbeknownst to Lehrer, Israel already had the bomb, courtesy of the Dimona nuclear reactor, which secretly went into plutonium production in 1964. By 1973’s Yom Kippur War, Israel had enough material for 20 kilotons of power, divided into 13 warheads. As the progress of the war turned against the Israelis, Prime Minister Golda Meir contemplated launching this arsenal.
William Gibson centers his biographical play Golda’s Balcony around these fraught hours. In 1977, Gibson spent seven weeks in Meir’s company, and he’s distilled those conversations into a dramatic monologue, recasting it at the height of the conflict. On Anna Louizos’s unfortunate set (it resembles interlocking slices of pumpernickel toast), Tovah Feldshuh’s Golda chain-smokes, snarls messages to Kissinger, and generously takes time away from the international crisis to tell us a bit about herself.
Feldshuh knows from the bottom of her prosthetic thick ankles to the middle of her strapped-on gut to the top of her dowdy wig that she has a milk-and-honey of a role, and she plays it with gusto and aplomb. Not only does she get to wear fake bushy eyebrows, but those eyebrows are set in the forehead of a commanding figure with a unique perspective on modern history and a remarkable past of her own. Nukes or not, there’s no half-life here. Meir was born in Kiev to a Jewish family who soon emigrated to Milwaukee to escape pogroms. After a brief career as a Wisconsin schoolteacher and housewife, Meir’s Zionist socialism led her and her husband to a kibbutz in Palestine. Though her first kibbutz assignment found her in the kitchen making matzo balls, her colleagues soon learned she had sufficient balls to be of greater use elsewhere. She held numerous posts in the Histadrut, Israel’s pre-Knesset. After the founding of the country, she served as labor minister, foreign minister, and finally prime minister.
Rich material, surely, which makes it all the sadder that Gibson hasn’t seen fit to rescue it from the creaky conventions of the bioplay or avoid the emotional exploitation of the framing device. Perhaps it’s simply our present situation that renders the use of war for dramatic effect so distasteful and the back-wall projection of infographics so unfortunate. But, if manipulation is the goal, Howell Binkley deserves a shout-out for striking lighting, and Mark Bennett contributes electrifying sound design. (When the guns fire, you feel reverberations through the floor.) While current events may render the play’s timing regrettable, director Scott Schwartz’s timing is far more opportune. He assists Feldshuh in dividing Gibson’s script into clear and distinct sections, lending the 90 intermission-less minutes an efficiency and vigor. Of course, Schwartz can’t correct Gibson’s taste for truism and platitude. Though maybe he shouldn’t. When Feldshuh solemnly intoned, “We will have peace when the Arabs learn to love their children more than they hate the Jews,” the collective “ooooh!” that burst from the audience was louder than bombs.
Speaking of bombs, performance artists Deke Weaver and Michael Farkas clearly haven’t mastered the science of fusion. Their show, Saturn’s Wake, blends Weaver’s script and video work with Farkas’s physical comedy and music-making, but these elements never fully combine. As the lights come up, Weaver sits huddled on the floor, enshrouded in a newspaper cloak. Farkas, cranking an antiquated music box, walks solemnly past him. Behind the men hang two posters. One shows Saturn devouring a son, the other presents a mermaid giving herself a good scrub. The lack of correspondence is hardly auspicious.
As Farkas plays music from a variety of quirky instruments (glass bottles, thumb pianos, banjo), Weaver narrates a tale of orphans adrift in the slums on New Year’s. Lending Luc Sante’s Low Life a few magical-realist fillips, he tells of princely rats, clandestine hovels, and esoteric street gangs. Props fall as if by magic from the ceiling and sprightly video punctuates the action, but these amusements can’t conceal the fissures. Farkas’s music is unfailingly pleasant, but doesn’t do much more than underscore. It’s no surprise to learn that Weaver has worked primarily as a solo artist—he never bothers to integrate Farkas fully into the piece. Even when Farkas leaves the orchestra behind and performs alongside Weaver—most memorably as a magic fish/rock star—his contributions never seem necessary.
Far more than he requires a backup band or co-actor, Weaver needs an editor—a ruthless one. Though Jill Samuels receives credit as director, her influence is little felt. The show threatens to end several times, but the hour and a half drags tediously on. Weaver doesn’t rest until he’s piled speech upon speech, incident upon incident. He ties up ends that hadn’t seemed loose, explicates the metaphors better left veiled. Many plays are venal, some are martial, others are mercurial, but Saturn’s Wake is unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, absolutely saturnine.