“The Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre entrance temporarily closed for emergency work until Monday, March 31.”
For anyone familiar with the legendary lockout that threatened to strand several hundred eager ticket holders on the mid-June, 1937 opening night of composer Mark Blitzstein’s controversial musical, this was either life imitating life (or art), art imitating art (or life)—or just a partly curious, partly crazy, madly felicitous coincidence. (For avid DC-area theatergoers, it was a trip back to 1999 and The American Century Theater’s production, when audiences awaiting entry, told that ongoing legal disputes had led to padlocks being installed on the theater’s doors, were kept waiting for nearly an hour—and compelled, at long last, to crawl or squeeze through a back window to get in.)
Indeed, for those who were there in 1999, the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s sign soon began to seem more portentous than felicitous: a young woman came and told us we’d have to wend our way through the darkened food court, then back outside the building and around the bend, where we would, she assured us, be greeted and seated.
And . . . we were.
But that would be just the beginning of a night of present recalling past, of past and present shifting, then merging.
As dim lights slowly reveal a bare-bones stage—dull black floor, scruffy wooden scaffolding and chairs turned upside down or awkwardly nesting—a bright spot suddenly displaces the shabbiness. Into it strides a man with a short salt-and-pepper beard and the beginnings of a mustache; a long black, red-rimmed cape that he swishes with theatrically exaggerated, all-too-pleased-with-himself panache; in short, a showman’s savoir-faire and confidence. It is—for a good number of the students in the audience, who seemed, judging by their reactions, to appreciate and anticipate much of what they were seeing—who else? Of course: Orson Welles (Rick Foucheux).
Welles (“I can’t keep away” from the theater, he tells us, and The Cradle Will Rock was just too irresistible) informs us that it was his doing that we couldn’t get in: “Believe me, you get so much better at magic once you’re dead.” Foucheux gives us an impishly personable and largely believable impresario, but an only partially satisfying Welles, capturing his dichotomous self-assurance and mischievousness, but settling for an approximation of what biographer Peter Noble called Welles’s “gloriously resonant speaking-voice,” which almost had a life of its own. Foucheux seemed to be enjoying the show so much, though, both onstage and from the audience, to which he repaired between his scenes, that it was hard to hold it against him. (Watching him laughing and enjoying the show, it was hard to tell who was doing the appreciating: Welles . . . or Foucheux? Or both?)
The ‘play in music’, much like Welles’ most (and in a way, fatally, at least career-wise) famous film, Citizen Kane—which would send him on a trajectory that would take him as far geographically as the two mediums were apart practically and conceptually—employs a non-linear narrative structure, its ten scenes jumping from past to present in a way that is at first jarring, but takes on an inner logic and gut-wrenching dramatic necessity. Example: At one point, a policewoman enters Harry Druggist’s (Roy Barber) drugstore and tells him there’s going to be an explosion—yet we’ve already seen Harry in jail; he’s told us he likes it there. The actors, for the most part, are sensitive to these emotional and cognitive disconnects, and play to their strengths.
While Blitzstein’s use of simplistic (Mr. Mister), explicit (Harry Druggist) and even offensive (the Polocks) nomenclature may be a manifestation of his allegiance to Bertholt Brecht’s belief that the audience should always be aware that it is not a depiction of reality, but more an intellectual exercise, a few characters nonetheless contrarily come alive; sometimes, it seems, almost as a direct refutation of the contention. In fact, the scene in Harry’s Drugstore is one of the most moving, and features the characters with the most offensive names: the young immigrants Gus Polock and his pregnant wife, Sadie.
Played by Josh Bierman and Lindsay Martin with credible Russian-Jewish accents, and a tender hopefulness alongside an irrefutable Weltschmerz that belies the characters’ and the actors’ years, Gus and Sadie will linger in the audience’s mind, and will link in that recollection to the man in jail who earlier told us, his voice and face expressionless but for a near-imperceptible flicker of pain, that he likes it there: “It’s lonely where my drugstore used to be.”
Welles (Foucheux) appears again, this time to tell us—prefaced with a pinch of justifiable pride verging on self-promotion, that in the meantime, he’s been a huge success on radio and Broadway—that he’s going to take a role: that of the villain, Mr. Mister, owner of the steel mill, the lifeblood of the town. Not to let the press off the hook—for Blitzstein will wreak a Blitzkrieg on most forms of human endeavor—in a scene with Mr. Daily, the newspaper publisher, the two of them exalt the freedom of the press: which they gleefully define, prancing arm and arm, as the freedom “to say whatever we want, whichever side will pay the best.”
Blitzstein’s score and script segue swiftly from drama to comedy, tragedy to hilarity, and Director Leslie Jacobson (who in addition to her professorial duties at GW is the founding Artistic Director of Horizons Theatre) and her actors are up to the task. From the doomed young Polish couple we go to Dauber the Painter (Shira Herald), nattily outfitted in khaki slacks, burgundy suspenders, broad yellow tie and light blue shirt, and Masha the Musician (Zinhle Essamuah), more elegantly attired in golden dress accessorized with a long scarf in black, gold, and white.
The two are bribed by the alternately oily and slyly sinister Mr. Mister—having just excoriated him, before his unexpected arrival, for his seaminess and vileness—to join the Liberty Committee, composed of the town’s leading citizens, and armed with the bullets of Mr. Mister’s economic howitzer. Herald and Essamuah silently and effectively convey—Herald, the painter’s blissful oblivion; Essamuah, the musician’s undisguised dismay—how the poison of Mr. Mister’s unchallenged power is seeping into the moral crevices of the town.
There is, however, a hero: Larry Foreman (Kevin Frey), a union organizer, passes out leaflets urging the steelworkers to join together against the bosses who oppress them with low wages and slave-like hours and working conditions—of which Mr. Mister is the mastermind. Frey is excellent, evincing the idealism, determination and commitment of a young man who sees wrong and wants to right it, no matter what the cost. (He sings well, too!)
And of course, there’s Moll, a prostitute and the first character we meet, played by Olive Stanton in the 1937 production—the woman who, knowing she was risking her future by defying government orders that had shut the play down, stood up in her seat, and sang.
Moll is played here by Haruka Nakagawa, who seems to have taken to heart Blitzstein’s devotion to Brecht, who is said to have encouraged and even, arguably, inspired the musical after hearing Blitzstein play what would become Moll’s iconic song, “Nickel Under the Foot.” Nakagawa, in a plain pencil skirt, blouse obliviously half-pulled out of it and covered by a thin cardigan, sings it in a light voice, devoid of dynamics, yet with a precise, rhythmic articulation that suggests a quietly profound understanding of the character’s despair at the hopelessness of her poverty.
Blitzstein—Patrick O’Donnell, who cheerfully played the composer’s gritty, lyrical, choppy, complex, easy, cabaret-style score for the length of the play, non-stop—picks up on her intonation when Moll makes a phone call, and brays “Ring! Ring!” in a monotone, reminding the audience that then, this was a show done, of necessity, without props, sets, or costumes.
Meanwhile, at the university, President Prexy (Alexandria Taliaferro, who’s clearly studied the specimen carefully, to devastating effect), attired in suit and high heels, is meeting with part-time football coach, Professor Trixie (also Josh Bierman, in a bravura change of character from Gus Polock). The open-mouthed, chest-thrusting but eager-to-please prof, being two sandwiches short of a picnic, sells out without much of a fight—or, more accurately, without realizing he’s selling out, or even what he’s agreed to.
The Reverend Salvation (a hilariously, eye-rollingly spot-on Sam Game) is obsequiously smooth, but he, too, is quickly corrupted by the Misters—in his case, Mrs. Mister (Rachel Weinstein, with a firm, well-trained voice, pleasingly modulated), the stereotypical “rich lady.” Weinstein milks the character for every ounce of empty-headed egotism, vanity, and viciousness, implicitly if unknowingly judged by the eyes of the red fox stole thrown around her neck, the creature’s realistic dark orbs disturbingly gleaming.
No doubt the Rev has Salvation in his sights. For, lo: it is not only those who toil for survival who are susceptible to the lure of Mammon. On the pulpit, the Reverend stumps for “Peace at any cost,” as the Liberty Committee hums “A . . men-n-n-n-n”; but he quickly changes his tune to a call for “inner peace,” when Mrs. Mister stuffs some currency down his cassock: war, as every plutocrat worth his salt (mine) knows, is good for the economy. But not, as the tragedies and terrors pile up, for much else: there will be threats, and grisly death; the actors, including a powerful, heartbreaking Madison Awalt as Sister Mister defending her brother, and a diabolical Foucheux at the height of Mr. Mister’s unconscionable evil, should be mentioned.
Blitzstein finally met Bertholt Brecht, after a (young) lifetime of admiration, the year before the play would be produced, and played “Nickel Under the Foot” for him; this was before the thought of writing a musical was even a glimmer in his eye. The idea was, in fact, Brecht’s, who suggested that Blitzstein take the concept of prostitution and, as we’d say now, run with it, expanding it to every element of life in which people sell themselves.
Blitzstein’s musical has been produced and revived, on stage and in film, numerous times since its ill-starred but now legendary premiere. Not only does its message not lose currency; it seems to speak with renewed, even increasing relevance today, in a world where the “99%” and the “1%” are still part of the daily discourse. Leslie Jacobson, Patrick O’Donnell, their talented and dedicated troupe of 21 young actors (plus one seasoned professional) and a design team of 11 make Mark Blitzstein’s fragmented, despairing vision, and the “nickel” that still peeks out from under that “foot,” come alive for DC-area theatergoers in the 21st century.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
The Cradle Will Rock is a joint production of the Department of Theatre and Dance and the Department of Music and has two more performances remaining: today, Saturday, March 29th at 7:30 PM and Sunday, March 30th at 2 PM at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre – 800 21st Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 994-0995, at least 6 hours in advance of the performance, or purchase them online.
Orson Welles, Mister Mister (Rick Foucheux).**
Patrick O’Donnell (Marc Blitzstein).
Moll (Haruka Nakagawa).
Gent/Professor Scoot (Jonah Bannett).
Dick (Floyd Jones).
Cop, Reporter (Marc Albert).
Reverend Salvation/Understudy, Mr. Mister (Sam Game).
Editor Daily (Liberty Committee Member) (Max Schwager).
Dr. Specialist (LC Member)/Junior Mister (Andrew Flurer).
Dauber, the painter (LC member) (Shira Herald).
Masha, the musician (LC member) (Zinhle Essamuah).
University President Prexy (LC member) (Aexandria Taliaferro).
Professor Trixie (LC member)/Gus Polock (Josh Bierman).
Professor Mamie (LC member) (Erin Jones).
Court Clerk/Bugs/Reporter (Kait Haire).
Harry Druggist (Roy Barber).*
Mrs. Mister (Rachel Weinstein).
Sister Mister (Madison Awalt).
Steve (Harry’s son) (Colton Timmerman).
Sadie Polock (Lindsay Martin).
Larry Foreman (Kevin Frey).
Ella Hammer (Lily Sondik).
**Members of Actor’s Equity.
The Designers, et al.
Scenic Design (Jie Yu).
Lighting Design (Izzy Einsindler).
Costume Design (Reema Al-Bawardi).
Assistant Music Director (Emily Goggin)
Dramaturgs (Rosemary Kalonaros, Alex Nowicki, and Max Schwager).
Production Stage Manager (Aaron Pollon).