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American Inventions

Sometimes I wish every Tommy’s burger joint had a small yard behind the parking lot with a couple of doomed cattle bellowing in the moonlight as the teenagers wait in line for their ground meat on a bun. At least then going to Tommy‘s would involve an authentic, perhaps even sobering reflection on the workings behind America’s remarkable ability to package, market and consume, abilities that have made us the envy of the world. And indeed, the difference between Swing! -- a ”celebration of the music and dance phenomenon that swept the nation in the ‘30s and ’40s,“ in from Broadway at the Ahmanson Theater -- and the era from which it is derived is something like the difference between a hamburger and the steer it came from. But even that comparison gives this dance-music revue more weight than is really there. Swing! is so infused with perky, predigested images, it offers not so much the texture of ground meat as the aroma that wafts across the street from the broiler. This is all calculated, presumably, to trigger nostalgia for an imaginary place and time in which grinning mixed-race couples slither through each other‘s thighs at a USO dance and nobody says boo, where Ann Hampton Callaway’s additional lyrics to ”Stompin‘ at the Savoy“ try to explain how the club helped race relations. (As for the mix’s slippery Isaac Hayes--era guitar riffs . . . don‘t ask.)

On the other hand, the plotless Swing! -- which consists entirely of medleys of compositions by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Sy Oliver, Count Basie, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and others, directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, supervised by Jerry Zaks, and designed to exploit the retro-chic swing craze that’s been sweeping the nation‘s club scene for a number of years now -- does, after all, get 20-somethings and their grandparents into the theater at the same time. And what could be wrong with that? How can one possibly object to two hours of first-rate Lindy-hopping, boogying, tap-dancing and scat singing by a company of vivacious vocalists and dancers dressed in zoot suits, bobby socks and saddle shoes? (The costumes were designed by William Ivey Long.) Or to an able quartet of singers like Charlie Marcus, Ann Crumb, Alan H. Green and Sarah Jane Nelson? Or to accompaniment by a great onstage band called the Gotham City Gates, conducted by Boko Suzuki and situated on a bandstandplatform that rolls to and fro beneath the triple proscenium arches of Thomas Lynch’s green-and-purple Deco frame?

The problem is that the era in question -- as opposed to the pseudo-era celebrated here -- occurred during a post-Depression, World War II climate in which we were blithely segregating and persecuting our black, Latino, Asian and indigenous fellow citizens. And although we may have cultivated a reputation for boisterous innocence, we were anything but innocent -- as noted in, say, Arthur Miller‘s plays and, later, in Thomas Pynchon’s novels. Swing!, it seems, is not really in the business of remembering but of highlighting the mythology behind the PT Cruiser aesthetic.

I know it‘s uncharitable to fault a work of unabashed entertainment for being yet another diversion in a culture of diversion. I know I’m supposed to be ”fair“ and say things like, ”If you‘re looking for a night of uplift, beautifully choreographed and soulfully sung, Swing! is for you.“ No, not this time. I may be a crank, but I’m fed up with having frothy artifice served up as an ”era.“ That‘s what Disneyland is for.

I just saw a commercial on CNN for a trucking company that shows big rigs crossing the desert to the music of Vivaldi! All these fake feel-good sounds and pictures don’t make me feel good at all, only mildly depressed by the seductive grandeur of ad images that have nothing to do with anything beyond the manipulations of the agency that dreamed them up. On CNN, that‘s merely an assault; in the theater, it feels like robbery.

Americana takes a far more muted form in Heather Woodbury’s holiday-themed one-woman show, Violet With Shades of BlueThe Lost Christmas Episode, at the Evidence Room -- a re-compilation and, in some ways, expansion (in a genre she amusingly refers to as ”endurance art“) of her epic 20-hour performance novel, The Heather Woodbury Report, which she boiled down to a 10-hour version, What Ever, performed locally two years ago.

In the evening‘s first half (”The Lost Christmas Episode“), performing on a mostly empty set with, mercifully, no sound effects (save those generated by the actor) and armed with a hand-held microphone, Woodbury inhabits several distinct stage areas in order to portray stories with dozens of characters, some of whom will eventually collide.

On a freezing Wisconsin highway, a female teenager driving a stolen truck picks up a hitchhiker, a guy perhaps a year or two older than herself, a streetwise philosopher who’s heading to NYC en route from the Pacific Northwest. Both seem to be kindly, lost-soul misfits, trying to cover their innocence with masks of knowing cool; Woodbury nails their authenticity and vulnerability both in her writing and in her extraordinarily nuanced tics of voice and gesture. When the hitchhiker defends techno-pop and the driver consequently refers to him as ”weird,“ he gently counsels her in a Tennessee Williams--like cadence: ”‘Weird’ is sloping on the antiquated side of the vernacular.“ He proposes ”fiended“ or ”rare“ instead.

Which suggests the reasons for the piece‘s underlying charm: its beguiling mix of the hip with the sweet. Woodbury is so good, and her bursts of insight so subtle, she may well emerge as a latter-day Lily Tomlin, or even Ruth Draper. Indeed, the character of Violet, an octogenarian communist who hobbles about accompanied by a poodle named Balzac, shares the New England haughtiness that characterizes so many of Draper’s eccentrics. Violet is the focus of the second half (”Violet With Shades of Blue“), as she throws a birthday party for Balzac while indulging in a drinking binge after her friends have all bailed from their commitment to attend the festivities.

Violet was a kind of Greek chorus in The Heather Woodbury Report, and director Dudley Saunders remarks in the program how Violet was so popular and underused there that Woodbury brought her back in this more focused presentation. The result is a letdown with a revelation: Overexposure to Violet forces us to acknowledge that all Woodbury‘s characters are not really characters at all, but slivers of language and gesture that create the illusion of character. The potency of Woodbury’s performance novels lies -- contrary to appearance -- not in her characterizations, but in the way the shards of story combine into an American collage, with its juxtapositions and encounters among stoned teenagers, pimps and hookers, and stolid Midwestern families. Which, unfortunately for Violet, means that her hour of stage time feels excessive and self-consciously poignant, almost dripping in honey. Violet in a crowd and upstaged appears a richer creation than the solitary Violet talking on the phone or to her pooch, with all the time in the world.


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