It seems that lately, every time I go to a play — or a movie, for that matter — it gets me thinking about Donald Trump. Ever since he and his goon squad have taken over in Washington, I’ve noticed that so much of what we see and create seems newly topical and timely. Everything is now filtered through a horrifying new prism, taking on fresh meaning and urgency, whether it was explicitly created in reaction to the current state of things or because directors’ notes call our attention to thematic parallels. Even when there’s no deliberate connection, we often can’t help but make it anyway, when a piece reminds us how nativism, racism, misogyny, et al. are now rampant and even dogma.
To take a few recent examples:
Debra J’Anthony originally programmed the Academy of Music’s production of Sweet, Sweet Spirit, performed last month, because she knew “it would be relevant to the LGBTQ community in our area” — though she also wondered if its themes of homophobia and violence would seem like old news in our tolerant Valley. “I never anticipated that the piece would become so relevant and true to the tenor of our times,” she told me.
Or take WAM Theatre’s remount of Emilie, about the 18th-century countess who defied sexist stereotypes to pursue scientific studies and an autonomous love life. The recent revival was intended to build on the show’s previous acclaimed run, but with the Groper-in-Chief seated in the Oval Office, the piece suddenly became “absolutely apropos,” according to its director, Kristen van Ginhoven, giving it “a whole new edge.”
And Mount Holyoke College’s recent staging of the musical Cabaret must have given its audience more than a frisson of recognition, as it traced the rise of Nazism and a young woman’s journey of discovery in a dangerous world.
Current and upcoming shows in our area further underline the potential for art to hold a mirror up to present-day preoccupations.
Nassim Soleimanpour is an experimental playwright from Iran, one of the countries targeted by Trump’s monstrous travel ban. Blank, presented next weekend by Serious Play! at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton, takes his adventurous theater-making “to new extremes [via] a script riddled with blanks” that are up to the audience and performers to fill in, creating a different story each night. It’s thus a celebration of imagination and an implicit call for out-of-the-box solutions to daunting challenges.
Playing this weekend at UMass, Quiara Alegía Hudes’ The Happiest Song Plays Last explores the lives of two Puerto Rican cousins, one of them a military consultant, the other an academic who feels called to serve the dispossessed in her inner-city community, both of them troubled by their pasts. Written in 2012 against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, the play is now inescapably haunted by today’s ugly budget-slashing and nativism.
A similar ghost must shadow La Cage aux Folles, opening this weekend at the Majestic Theater. This fall-down funny musical about a collision of drag queens and stuffy conservatives will no doubt stir thoughts of the expected trashing of hard-won rights by a reinforced and emboldened Supreme Court.
Likewise, there’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, a one-man show written and performed by James Lecesne, playing at Hartford Stage through next weekend. The title figure is a flamboyant, viciously bullied gay 14-year-old whose sudden disappearance brings his Jersey Shore neighbors face-to-face with their own hostility or indifference.
Then there are those pieces that directly respond to today’s frightening headlines.
Seth Lepore is ending The Seth Show, his monthly helping of topical “observational satire,” with a “final final” outing at Eastworks on May 2nd. The Trump ascendancy has moved him to take a hiatus from performing in order to “serve his fellow humans in a time of authoritarian crisis” through community organizing. This last performance, he says, will be “both an absurdist love poem to the world and a testament to the perseverance of human resiliency.”
In Putney, Vermont, Sandglass Theater is developing a new production, Babylon, in response tothe Mideast refugee crisis and the controversy over settling Syrian migrants in the town of Rutland. A work-in-process showing April 28-29 is performed by five actor/singer/puppeteers who “work with simple means, not much more than someone could carry with them as they flee.”
Nevertheless, these days of anxiety and alarm can also make us appreciate anew those works of art that are pure escapist fun, that simply and unabashedly celebrate joy and laughter — and that, if we’re lucky, don’t start us thinking about Trump all over again.
Blank courtesy of Aurora Nova
Absolute Brightness… by Matthew Murphy
Emilie by Enrico Spada
Babylon by Shoshana Bass
Seth Lepore courtesy of the artist
La Cage aux Folles by Lee Chambers
Contact Chris Rohmann at firstname.lastname@example.org.