Thursday, July 22, 2004

Playhouse workshops new musical on 19th-century French commune

by Bill Fark

Images and voices from the past are accepted as part of everyday life. We watch movies made more than a centrury ago (on television and videos) and listen to recordings that are older. In "Paris Commune," opening Tuesday at La Jolla Playhouse, we delve even deeper into the past.

The words and ideas derive from an aberration in European history, the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. The Page to Stage presentation differs, however. The text and songs are authentic but are spoken and sung by contemporary performers. Co-authors Steven Cosson and Michael Friedman talked recently about the show's creation and development.

"It began when I read a book about the period," Friedman said. "It covered the people involved, their motivation for establishing the commune and mentioned a concert the Communards had presented."

"We had worked together previously," Cosson added, "but those plays were based on contemporary events. We interviewed the people involved, newspaper reporters who covered the stories, civic officials, politicians. Anyone who had any conneciton with what had happened. When (Friedman) came up with this idea, we thought of it as a challenge."

Following the end of the Franco-Prussian War, a group of patriots thought the peace terms that the Prussians imposed were too humiliating. They set up their own government in Paris in opposition to that of Adolphe Theirs at Versailles.

This led to armed conflict, and the Versaillais troops besieged Paris. Although the conflict involved a relatively small segment of the country's population and lasted a scant three months, more than 17,000 people were executed in reprisals. Cosson said he and Friedman researched the history of the commune extensively.

"We discovered a large number of letters and diaries, newspaper stories and eyewitness accounts by tourists. And amazing number of Americans and Englishmen were in Paris at the time. When I learned of the large-scale concert staged by the Communards at Tuileries, I decided to use that to frame the story."

Friedman, who has written the music for his and Cosson's previous collaborations, said the music was easy.

"There are 12 songs, all from the period. Street songs, operettas, and troop songs from both armies. Although our primary concentration is on the Communards, we give the other side a voice too."

Jean Isaacs, founder and head of the San Diego Dance Theatre, has created movement based on mid-18th-century dance forms.

The majority of the sources for the words are identified and authenticated, Cosson said.

"Mignon, the woman who heads the concert program, is based on a real person, with a few characteristics of her contemporaries. We also attribute some speeches to an anonymous 'schoolteacher.'"

"Our bourgeois character is also a composite," Friedman said. "His speeches are mostly quotes from newspaper articles."

"Paris Commune" is still a work-in-progress. It was first produced by The Civilians at the Mazer Theatre in New York City. Following that, the authors were invited to participate in the New York Theatre Workshop at Dartmouth College, where it was rewritten and staged last fall.

"This is our second workshop," Cosson said of the Playhouse production, "actually, the first where the play will run for more than three performances. It's terrific to have an actual production and not have to worry about reviews."

"And it's like being with family," Friedman added. "We have worked very closely with director Daniel Aukin and the actors in 'Suitcase,' all of whom are either members or associates of The Civilians."