By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Comrade J.V. Stalin made a whole series of extraordinarily valuable and interesting remarks about . . . the artistic representation of historical figures.
Soviet film actor
I’m coming to the conclusion that the more data historians uncover, the less chance we have of understanding the people who shaped the past. My pessimism isn‘t confined to the noisy arcades of popular entertainment, with their truth-bending Pearl Harbors and Patriots -- even biographical scholarship experiences pendulum swings between reverence and iconoclasm, from apotheosis to expose. Quite apart from the effects of newly discovered facts or factoids, such fickle reversals may result from evolving social attitudes and freshly acquired political allergies. Often they are simply the expedient response to having an 800-pound gorilla sitting on an artist’s chest -- Stalin passing the popcorn to Nikolai Cherkassov (Ivan the Terrible) in a Kremlin screening room, or the more modern demands of “cultural sensitivity.”
Theater tends to rely upon three ways of presenting historical figures: dramatized biography (Sunrise at Campobello), iconographic pageant (The Will Rogers Follies) or apocalyptic interpretation (A Huey Newton Story). These presentations can be, as above, ensemble dramas, full-blown musicals or one-person shows. John Belluso‘s play The Body of Bourne is a bit of a hybrid: It comes with an ensemble yet has the feel of a solo show.
Largely forgotten today, Randolph Bourne was a pioneer advocate of education reform and a persuasive social essayist whose voice, along with those of people like John Reed, Max Eastman and Walter Lippmann, created the chorus of intellectual dissent that eventually became the modern American left. During World War I, his pacifist articles in the Atlantic Monthly, Seven Arts and Eastman’s The Masses made lonely appeals to reason in a land gone mad with patriotic hysteria. Bourne was also a handicapped individual, whose botched forceps delivery had cruelly disfigured his face and whose early bout with spinal tuberculosis had left him dwarfed and hunchbacked. Social alienation, then, was no abstraction to Bourne, who became one of the century‘s first champions for the rights of immigrants, workers and the disabled.
The show is powered by the ebullient and graceful performance of Clark Middleton, who effortlessly carries the proceedings on his character’s misshapen shoulders. (His sardonic vulnerability recalls Herbert Grunbaum‘s brief scene as Filch in the beggar’s costume shop in G.W. Pabst‘s 1931 film version of Threepenny Opera.) The Taper production, directed by Lisa Peterson, retrieves a visionary titan from oblivion yet, unlike its subject, never seems willing to examine Bourne’s life in full, serving instead as a kind of introductory course to the man, an appreciation rather than an understanding.
The Body of Bourne‘s calendar narrative begins at the beginning, with his “messy birth,” and ends with Bourne’s death at age 32 during the 1918 influenza epidemic. In between are the early years of schoolyard taunts and a home life spent under the roof of a stern uncle who thwarts his enrollment at Princeton. Later, there‘s Bourne the young man in vocational purgatory, transcribing Mozart and Chopin into player-piano sheets for a tyrannical boss. Eventually he matriculates to the comparative paradise of Columbia University, which is followed by a grand tour of Europe and the series of anti-war pronouncements that indelibly marked Bourne as a dangerous radical.
Peterson’s production uncoils with the sweep of a historical newsreel as names, dates and quotes are projected against backdrops, and a chorus of actors proclaims this data or intones the highlights of Bourne‘s career. Rachel Hauck’s relatively spare set employs a few props and bits of furniture, along with flats that appear as towering walls, against which Christopher Komuro‘s projections are flashed -- a smart architectural strategy that speeds the story along without deflecting attention from the cast.
Some scenes come off a little jejune, particularly the interludes representing Bourne’s prewar European travels with his friend Carl (Stephen Caffrey), and, in the evening‘s sole nod to cross-casting, Peterson unwisely has a woman actor (Jenny O’Hara) play Max Eastman. Beyond this, however, there lies a more fundamental problem: In trying to bring to light a forgotten handicapped figure, Belluso and the Taper reduce Bourne to a kind of commemorative-plate hero rather than expanding him into a real person. The play, which was first developed through the Taper‘s Other Voices Project for and by disabled artists, and Peterson’s staging do this by infantilizing Bourne, by presenting him as a cute and altogether charming waif. The Taper production plays down his physical deformities by taking away his hump -- which is, in fact, mentioned in the play -- and all but ignores his disfigured face. (Middleton is given a malformed ear; we‘re supposed to infer the rest.) We could very well leave the theater thinking that Bourne’s main handicap in life was his height. This Bourne is less a John Merrick than he is a variation on Gunter Grass‘ Oskar Matzerath, a precocious boy who has never physically matured.
No doubt Belluso and the Taper felt that if their man was going to stand in the spotlight, it had better be a very sympathetic one. But it’s one thing to say, “I‘m writing a play about Joe Blow because I think he’s an interesting and worthy character, and I intend to portray him in an admirable light.” That‘s legitimate, and so is the practice of using such a hero to advance a certain cause or belief. Where it gets sticky is when Joe Blow is prettied up, and worse, when the parts that are made over would have lent crucially to our interest in the person and his predicament.