Two Minutes' Traffic: Pacific Overtures, Signature Theatre/ Angels in America, Arena Stage

It shouldn't be a question that if someone is producing Pacific Overtures properly, you should make the time to go, right? I feel like we're all in agreement, especially with the posthumous deification of Sondheim complete, even if traditionally, folks tend to be a little smug when discussing this particular work. Oh you know, they like to relate, Sondheim's favorite song he ever wrote was "Someone in a Tree," because knowing trivia proves your bonafides, it's an interesting show, but that's all it really is, isn't it? 

As a teen of a certain nerdy stripe, I bought the cast album and listened dutifully. Some of the music has stayed with me ever since, and some of it felt forgettable. Despite the efforts of the liner notes, I wasn't entirely clear on what the actual storyline was beyond the broadest strokes of "it's a musical about when America forced open Japan's closed borders in the nineteenth century." Part of the pleasure of seeing a musical for the first time long after you learn its cast album is that you finally get a sense of the full picture that's created when it becomes theatre on a stage.

The Signature production is beautifully theatrical and fully realized, with a trio of excellent performances at its center that find the heart of the story in Sondheim's hands. Jason Ma is a warm and commanding presence as the Reciter, while Jonny Lee, Jr. and Daniel May carry the emotional weight of the evening's story as two men brought together in crisis and then evolve in the ever-changing post-isolation world. American musical theatre most often tries to find larger themes within specific stories, but for Pacific Overtures, Sondheim engaged with an enormous historical and cultural theme and found its heart in returning to the story of Kayama and Manjiro as Japan was forced to reckon with Western colonial forces. It's not surprising that audiences see the big intellectual picture, but in performance, the human stories speak clearly and with purpose. It's a shame that Overtures is produced so rarely, when it has so much to share and say. 

As the title of this blog may indicate, I'm a Shakespeare person at heart for a myriad of reasons. Among those is that by virtue of being around for so long, directors and theatre companies can approach his plays with a kind of fearlessness, free to find the themes that excite them and stage the plays in wholly new and original ways. No one holds the rights to Shakespeare or Euripides and can demand the final say on directorial decisions, and no one is obliged to feel beholden to how anyone else has ever staged the same scene. 

With twentieth and twenty-first century plays, however, it's incredibly difficult sometimes to break free of expectations. Christopher Bannow just wrote a fascinating piece on his experience touring with Daniel Fish's production of Oklahoma! and how many audience members were in open rebellion that the show wasn't the same old production they remembered with a coat of professionalism on it. Audiences may have learned to expect bold choices in Ibsen by now, but once you hit the more recent past, it's much harder to make the big swings. We might expect experimental Shakespeare to stage a play in a literal sandbox, but what about a Tony Kushner play? 

Director János Szász has taken Kushner's Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches and all the freedom from realism that Arena Stage's Fichlander Theatre naturally provides and run with it. Actors are free to physicalize the play with frantic motion around the sand-covered space, to abandon props in the sand, and to remain in the voms or standing above the stage in the audience aisles as the need demands.

I'll be honest, not every choice worked for me, and as Szász worked to make Part One feel like it could provide an ending that could satisfy an audience who wouldn't have an opportunity to see Part Two, the night stretched on a little too long. But very quickly, it also becomes clear that Szász is demonstrating how much we need to treat even our modern canon with the same energy of reinvention as we do the classical canon. I desperately wish we could see Szász's take on Part Two; alas, Arena is offering only a single staged reading that sold out within a day. The best meat for Edward Gero's Roy Cohn and Susan Rome's array of characters takes place in Part Two, after all, and we hunger for it by the end of the evening.

I've been lucky enough to see two fully staged Angels cycles in the DC region, first at Forum Theatre and then in the Roundhouse/Olney co-production. Kushner's play pulses with invention and fluidity even now, decades after its premiere. What a gift to see that spirit of invention igniting the stage and reminding us all that every production, every individual night of a run has the potential to be different; it's why we go to the theatre instead of watching the latest premium cable drama or rereading a favorite novel. Great works are always beginning anew.


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