Theater archives

Founding Fodder


Prior to the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin and his son William were not only parent and child, but also the closest of friends. Franklin was, of course, Franklin, but William was a star in his own right. Educated in England, William felt close to the British aristocracy and was named Royal Governor of New Jersey in 1763. As sides split in the lead-up to the war, William refused to break with the king— despite Ben’s pleas for him to join the colonial cause. By July 4 of 1776, William had been torn from his governorship and imprisoned by the Americans, losing not only a career, but also a father: because of William’s allegiance to the British (which included acts of loyalist terrorism), Ben permanently disowned him.

Trying to understand the brutality of this rift is the heart of Josh Kornbluth’s immensely enjoyable new monologue, Ben Franklin: Unplugged (P.S. 122). It’s also a way for Kornbluth to examine the problematic relationship he has with his own parents: his unrepentantly Stalinist mother and, especially, his dead father. Kornbluth’s interest in Franklin was at first accidental: shaving in a steamy bathroom mirror one morning, he glances up and notices he’s started to look like ol’ Ben. This leads to an acting gig impersonating Franklin on MSNBC, then, through his research on the Founding Kite-
Flyer, to an obsession with Ben and William’s tragic relationship.

Kornbluth, perhaps best known for his monologue Red Diaper Baby, delivers his tale with great appeal, much humor, and some nice round glasses. His occasional ill-at-easeness on stage only lends him a certain credibility— even if parts of his pursuit sound a bit stretched. And while he uses the Franklins’ story to understand his own life, Kornbluth doesn’t fall into the solipsistic trap of subordinating history to his own neuroses: the glimpses at his own family are touching and funny, but the emotional weight of the Franklins’ saga remains foremost. —Brian Parks

Greeks Bearing Rifts

Voltaire may have regarded Jean Racine’s Phèdre as tragedy’s greatest heroine, but he was concerned with the deterioration of French classical literature. Any assessment resulting from his 18th-century worries may not seem particularly cogent to contemporary audiences. In a modern era where remorselessness is a primary component, the Greek queen’s anguish over incestuous longings for her stepson, Hippolytus, could register as passé— something to conjure sympathy but not empathy. It’s this condition that Jonathan Kent is up against with his production of Phèdre (BAM), and which he battles with better results than Hippolytus gets wrestling that bull from the sea. Kent doesn’t have the option of naturalism, either, not with characters who are demigods. Phèdre’s maternal grandfather is the Sun; her husband, Theseus, is on speaking terms with Poseidon. When Diana Rigg, buffeted around the stage as if by internal fires, shields her eyes against the Sun’s cold rays, she is literally warding off parental chastisement. So although Kent has claimed that Phèdre remains timelessly engaging because she’s so up-to-date, his actual bow to immediacy is in the directness and scale with which he’s staged Racine’s masterwork. His version restores meaning to the adjective awesome. Awe, of course, was the point of drama for Racine. He wasn’t interested in making his spectators “feel for” Phèdre. Kent is true to his playwright and is helped immeasurably by Ted Hughes’s translation, which trades in the music of rhymed alexandrines for muscular free verse. As Hippolytus, Toby Stephens embodies over-the-top playing that’s simultaneously the top. —David Finkle

Homeward Bound

Are they moving? In one fascinating sequence in Sonoko Kawahara’s Canon in 3D Major, three women lined up in chairs make hand motions— sewing, lifting, rubbing— so slowly and continuously that, like the minute hand on a clock, you have to study them to be sure they’re in motion. It is a Chekhovian moment in this reconstruction of The Three Sisters.

Canon is one of two pieces shown January 7 as part of Dance Theater Workshop’s “Hit & Run Festival”; it exemplifies the festival’s aim of mating theater with other art forms. Playing on Pachelbel’s composition, Canon is symmetrical and spare. The performers recite snatches of dialogue evoking languor and longing for home while arranging and rearranging themselves in tiny but telling interactions. All three lift their cups, but one drops her spoon; their reactions suggest intimacy, competition, affection. As silence alternates with music and clocks chime, the years pass excruciatingly. So overpowering is the sameness that any alteration— a red umbrella— explodes with drama. The work is distanced and cerebral, yet satisfying.

Clarinda Maclow’s Odd’s Sea (The Return), a retelling of The Odyssey, is as busy and noisy as Canon is restrained. In one scene the female actor portraying Telemachus wields a TV while a video screen behind her runs snatches of pop culture, from Mickey Mouse through sitcoms and news footage. Perhaps this is meant to suggest the collapse of civilization in Odysseus’s absence. But this confused hodgepodge— billed as a work in progress— allows no one theme to emerge from its pile of devices: video e-mail, screechy pseudo-classical singing, muscular choreography and street talk à la West Side Story. No wonder the wanderer takes so long to come home. — Francine Russo