The latest in Shipping Dock Theatre's historical tear is Canadian playwright Jason Sherman's It's All True. This time we get a close-up on American history: the legendary first performance of The Cradle Will Rock.
In 1937 socialist writer Marc Blitzstein (Billy DeMetsenaere) had in his hot little hands a satirical opera about the labor struggle. It was a new kind of theater: musical, political, without sentiment. He sent it to the 22-year-old Orson Welles (Michael Phillips), a bright, chaotic, and dangerous star on the New York scene. Welles, with images of rolling wagons and weeping prostitutes and streetlight solos dancing in his head, decided to stage it under Project 891, the WPA-funded theater project he ran with producer John Houseman (David Jason Kyle).
Cradle's opening night became history because it got caught in the middle of actual labor unrest: workers were gathering, conservative politicians were panicking, and, ultimately, the WPA withdrew its support. Just before opening (where the play begins), the company finds padlocks on the theater door.
This play is a mouthful for the actors, with its brisk pacing, overlapping lines, heated arguments, and character- and setting-jumping. On opening night, some scenes were a challenge. But things were already falling in place by the end of the performance, and it will only improve as the run continues. Everyone will take big, deep breaths, and all the pauses will fall in the right places.
Ironically for a play about a play whose production steadily gets more and more out of control, director Barbara Biddy takes the jumpy timeline and double roles firmly in hand and set designer P. Gibson Ralph creates a clean, efficient, and completely effective set. The Visual Studies Workshop stage becomes the players' stage at Maxine Elliott Theatre, and small tables are brought in to indicate Club 21 or a dressing room. Nothing more is needed.
If you want quick and easy entertainment, don't bother. This is time to think. We're behind the scenes at a pivotal moment in theater history. Characters discuss the intersection of politics and art, and whether theater should reflect what's really going on in the streets. Blitzstein and Welles argue about songs and set pieces as if they are life and death. And, in this setting, where theater is the only reality we have, they are. But it is a great credit to the cast and the production that nobody looked at their watch and nobody leaned over to whisper, "What just happened?"
I can't help but feel a tiny bit sorry for DeMetsenaere, Kyle, and Phillips, cast as Blitzstein, Houseman, and Welles. But especially Phillips. It has to be hard to play any well-known historical figure. How much harder is it when you have to try to live up to the man behind "Rosebud"? Phillips has one thing going for him, before the acting even comes into play: the radio voice. And while he has some difficulty projecting Welles' arrogance and charisma, in some scenes you can see he's learning how to throw his weight around like only the truly self-loved can do.
The acting in the rest of the small cast is generally quite good. I am confused by the playwright's choice to have two women play all the female roles, unless it's to stay true to Welles and Blitzstein's hang-ups with women. But luckily Melissa Rees and Jill Rittinger pull it off beautifully, with nice direction from Biddy. Rees' scene as the tortured and untrained Olive trying to get her song down is really well played, as is Rittinger's scene as Virginia Welles finally confronting her husband. Mark D'Annunzio, who plays the lead actor and budding socialist Howard DaSilva, is the easiest to watch. He's seamless, never letting you see the acting behind his energy.
You should go if you already like the theater or Depression-era history. Bring your brain; this is not a replacement for primetime.
It's All True through July 10. | Shipping Dock Theatre, Visual Studies Workshop, 31 Prince Street. | $20-$22. | www.shippingdocktheatre.org, 232-2250
--- Erica Curtis
Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as fun Shakespeare.
The Shakespeare Players (a division of the Rochester Community Players) is bringing Shakespeare to the park for the eighth year. This time it's The Comedy of Errors, that tangle of mistaken identity and twins, and director Linda Starkweather has a vision.
She'll be happy if "we can hook a few people on that Shakespeare isn't all that dull and stuffy," she says. And she's doing it with music.
The Comedy of Errors as a musical. You probably wish you thought of it first. The whacked-about servant twins sing "It's a Hard-Knock Life"; Adriana sings "I Hate Men" from Kiss Me Kate; there are old standards to rock 'n' roll favorites. Everyone sings along to a piano.
Starkweather likes the idea of free, outdoor theater because it's going back to the art form's roots, when theater was performed in the street or in venues that everyone could afford to attend. "The community was all seeing the same story being told, with the same moral or lesson," she says, "so this was sort of the communal, live experience. The theater has always been a great place for political or moral issues."
Though this comedy is bigger on pratfalls than politics. But lately it's been too hot for morals anyway. Bring your picnic. It's all in good fun.
You should go if you've ever sacrificed a night of entertainment because you just didn't want to go inside. Or, if you happen like to like the sound of "free admission."
The Comedy of Errors, July 1 through 10 (no show July 7). | Shakespeare Players, Highland Park Bowl, 1200 South Avenue, 8 p.m. | Free. | www.rochestercommunityplayers.org
--- Erica Curtis