A Cradle of Nostalgia

Photo by Mary Beth Delucia

If the Broadway stage is any indication, we really don’t much care for our own era. Maybe we just don’t know what to do with it theatrically, or in other ways as well. The blockbuster stage events coming out of New York seem to be doing everything possible to lead us into hazy mirages of the past. This year’s Tonys were gobbled up by The Producers, a retro kitsch adaptation of Mel Brooks’ 1968 movie — itself involving a play-within-a-play about a prior time. Its director, Susan Stroman, is also the creative force behind the Broadway hit Contact (now at the Ahmanson; see article above), a triptych of dance narratives: one set in the 18th century, one in the 1950s, and the third ostensibly in modern times, although it concerns a suicidal, flat-footed ad exec whose sexually overheated vision of salvation occurs at a swing-revival dance club. Which in turn brings to mind another dance extravaganza, the ’40s homage Swing!, which ran last season at the Ahmanson.

Marc Blitzstein’s light opera The Cradle Will Rock, now playing in the rustic Topanga Canyon amphitheater at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, was first produced in 1938, and is set shortly after the outbreak of World War I. It endorses the view that the American war effort was simply a rationalization for industrial profiteering from homemade armaments. (At the time the play first opened, America was preparing to enter the next world war.) Tim Robbins’ recent film of the same title made the remarkable circumstances of the original Cradle’s premiere slightly more familiar than before: Created on funds from the WPA’s theater project, it was produced by John Houseman and directed by Orson Welles. As it was about to open, the government got jittery about the musical’s pro-union, workers’-rights themes and did something quite common in the Soviet Union in those days but almost unheard of in America — it blocked the play’s opening by closing the theater. Led by Blitzstein, Houseman and Welles, the actors took to the streets of New York, followed by an audience clamoring for an opening night. When they had marched into a vacant theater, with Blitzstein at the piano they performed the play to a packed crowd, with everyone on the same side of the footlights. (In retrospect, it seems rather flattering for theater artists to be shut down by the government, signaling as it does that their work actually matters — yet another reason for a fond look backward.)

Among those in the troupe was actor Will Geer, playing Mr. Mister, the godfather of Steeltown, USA. (Geer was better known, to TV audiences, as Grandpa Walton.) Geer was later blacklisted by Joe McCarthy and fled to California, where he established this very theater in the hills of Topanga, as a refuge for blacklisted artists.

The 2001 Botanicum production is something of a family affair, featuring, in addition to the ghost of Geer, various offspring: daughter Ellen, who directed and plays a small part; Thad, following in his father’s footsteps in the role of Mr. Mister; and granddaughter Willow Geer-Alsop, as Mr. Mister’s conniving, spoiled daughter.

The play is an agitprop post card set to music, not a clash of opposing ideas but rather an insistence upon Blitzstein’s ideas in two acts, illustrating in the broadest strokes possible how the swine Mr. Mister rounds up pro-union agitators and has them arrested on trumped-up charges — though it’s his own “Liberty Committee” that lands itself in jail by mistake. From the prison, the play flashes back to each of the committee members’ relations with Mr. Mister, who has purchased the influence of Editor Daily (Richard Sherrell in a fedora with the label “press,” of course); the church, in the person of Reverend Salvation (Steve Matt), whose pacifism is swiftly compromised by a little cash; Dauber (Christopher Moore), an artist/highbrow sycophant sporting the regulation black beret; and so on. A prostitute croons, “They won’t buy our cream-white bodies, so we sell out in some other way . . .” It’s that kind of night.

Blitzstein’s music contains dissonant echoes of Kurt Weill’s and would be aided by stronger voices, though the effort is perfectly serviceable given that the opera is sung out of doors, without mikes. Aaron Hendry, as our swashbuckling steelworker hero, is especially fine leading a picket-sign-toting chorus for the heroic finale. Still, this oh-so-Soviet homage to the proletariat really needs a grubby little hole-in-the-wall to give it more voltage. Amid its bucolic Topanga Canyon setting, the revival seems an almost quaint response to the current floundering of labor unions across the country, more nostalgic than strategic. This is not a crime, of course — though a little lawbreaking may, in fact, be exactly what’s needed.

THE CRADLE WILL ROCK | Music and lyrics by MARC BLITZSTEIN | At the WILL GEER THEATRICUM BOTANICUM, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga | Through September 30

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