If you think the Summer Olympics from London this year is a grueling test of endurance, join the haggard corps of downtrodden, exploited dance marathon contestants at the grueling Marathon ’33 which is being given a very physical, visceral performance by The American Century Theater (‘TACT’) in Arlington, Virginia. Here, the audience is totally intermingled with the action of this play from the moment they step into the well-designed physical space (replete with a concession stand, infirmary and cots set up for quick intervals of sleep for the exhausted marathon participants).
Jean Reed (based on actress June Havoc) played by Jennifer Richter has some very affecting moments but, at times, the interpretation is so strident and over-the-top that I had a hard time identifying with her. The very talented ensemble cast works extremely hard to develop their characters but, at times, the shallow stereotypes and negative book by June Havoc (the younger sister of burlesque Queen Gypsy Rose Lee) are hard to take. I feel the well-known film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (which used this play as a source) succeeded more at creating audience sympathy with the characters.
More successful at breathing a semblance of nuanced full -dimension into their characters were Bruce Alan Rauscher (Patsy), Jamie Ogden (The Mick” Swenson), and especially Ann DeMichele – who lights up the stage with a white-hot ferocity. Bill Karukas (MC) and Alex Witherow (Mr. James) very appropriately convey their rigid characters with polish and flair.
Rarely produced due to the demanding logistics of the piece, the large cast of 32 people and the difficult subject matter (a period that many people would rather forget – but a period that is becoming more relevant in today’s economic hard times), TACT and Director Jack Marshall should be highly commended for even attempting such a demanding piece that produces such a tremendous amount of challenges.
It is very obvious that a lot of thought and hard work were put into this production especially from the musical and technical aspects of this highly interactive piece. From the six-piece band lead by Musical Director Tom Fuller to the Scenic Design by Michael deBlois to the Lighting Design by David Walden and the Costume Design by Rip Claassen – all technical aspects are top-notch. Especially effective are a number of musical standards from the era sung during breaks during the back-breaking marathon – including “My Sweet Embraceable You,” “If Love Were All,” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” which are performed with aplomb and breathe a nice note of relaxation into the frenetic proceedings.
Choreographer Sherry Chriss does a fine job of making the audience feel the exhaustion that the marathon participants are going through. The marathon contestants are pushed, prodded, made to endure physical pain and made to move continuously at all times – all for the promise of a small financial re-numeration. Choreographer Chriss enforces this feeling of utter exhaustion with well-choreographed near-falls and haphazard, exhausted gestures.
There is much overlapping dialogue in this play and, though this creates an appropriate mood of mayhem and confusion appropriate to the world of the Marathon, I found that I could not hear many of the lines. If you like the overlapping dialogue of a Robert Altman film or a play by David Mamet – then this play should not pose too much of a challenge for you.
Marathon ’33 takes you into the a highly-charged and forlorn world of the dance marathons of the 1930’s. It’s presented by a very committed theater full of talented individuals, and is a production you won’t soon forget.
Marathon ’33 plays through August 25th, 2012 at The American Century Theater -in Theatre II in the Gunston Arts Center – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office (703) 998-4555, or purchase them online.