Sunday, July 30, 2006

Rebels with a cause

Founded by a UCSD theater grad, a New York-based company brings an 1871 grass-roots rebellion in Paris to the La Jolla Playhouse

by Jennifer de Poyen, Arts Critic

On March 18, 1871, 82 tumultuous years after the opening shots were fired in the French Revolution, a ragtag band of patriots, Jacobins, artists, Marxists and ordinary Parisians banded together to wrest power from a republic they perceived as corrupt.

Their insurrectionary government, later known as the Paris Commune, didn't last long. On May 21, as commune leaders were hosting a benefit concert for widows and orphans at the Tuileries Palace, government soldiers crashed through the barricades and launched a bloody street war. By the end of May, reactionary forces had crushed the revolt, killed 30,000 to 40,000 people and imposed martial law. It was the end of what was, by some accounts, the first socialist experiment in Europe.

The Paris Commune, it's safe to say, hardly registers in the American imagination. But for the Civilians, the innovative New York-based theater company now in residence at the La Jolla Playhouse, the events of 1871 have strong contemporary reverberations. The company's "Paris Commune" is on view through Aug. 15 as part of the Playhouse's innovative Page-to-Stage program, which allows theater artists to develop their projects during six weeks of rehearsals and critic-free workshop performances. "These people had nothing, and very little chance to change the world or even their own lives, and yet they thought big," said Steven Cosson, a UCSD theater grad who founded the Civilians in 2001. "If you look at America today, we too are going through a very difficult political time. Most people are quite comfortable, really, and yet we think so small. Maybe because we all have a little something to hold onto, we think in small terms."

Best known for the 9/11-inflected "Gone Missing," a piece about things lost and found that played to rave reviews in New York and London, the Civilians practice a brand of collaborative, documentary-based theater that takes inspiration from real people and events, mixes in progressive politics and seeks, above all, to entertain.

They have a theme song, and an anthem, or sorts: "We think hard about stuff" - as someone says in an early work called "Canard, Canard, Goose?" - "then make a show about it."

The genesis for "Paris Commune" came from composer Michael Friedman, the work's co-author, who studied history as an undergraduate. One day, he found himself leafing through "one of those big textbooks you never read in college but keep on your bookshelf" when he came across an essay about the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud.

"There was this section on the commune and the fact that they took over the Tuileries, this massive imperial palace, and threw this concert for the rabble tot attend," Friedman said. "So we had this amazing image of this fancy-pants palace being taken over by the scum of Paris for a show, and then the troops came in. Already, without making anything up, you have such great material.

The more that Cosson and Friedman dug into the historical record and cultural lore, unearthing songs, music, dramatic texts, letters, journals, periodicals and newspapers, the more they saw theatrical possibilities. Because the commune's ideas were collected and disseminated through a series of impromptu meetings and demonstrations, much of the documentation is fragmentary and incomplete, leaving plenty of room for an imaginative retelling.

With an energetic cast of 10 representing, through 87 different characters, the bakers and schoolteachers and milliners who came and spoke their minds about their aspirations for a new society, the show re-imagines the fateful May 21 concert and recounts the commune's history.

"What's remarkable is that in the midst of all this chaos, there was an attempt by ordinary workers to define labor and the distribution of capital," Cosson said.

"We have transcripts," Friedman added, "of seamstresses and washerwomen who had very immediate material concerns, but who were thinking, sometimes in radical ways, about the role of marriage, workers' rights, educational reform, child-rearing, the relationship between business and society, how militarized a government should be, the role of the arts in society.

"In the end, their concerns are our concerns."

By shining a spotlight on the ordinary people who fueled the insurrectionary government's failed social revolution the show also suggests our own ability to commit to an ideal, and put principle into action, even in our atomized culture of focus groups, special interests and single-issue voting.

"The beauty of doing work from real life is that someone stood up in a public meeting in Paris in 1871, and 130 years later, it shows up here in La Jolla," Cosson said. "And because it's spoken by an actor in a theater, it's actually re-created. This ephemeral thing survived."

The desire to discover common ground among common people is a driving force behind the Civilians' work, which blends entertainment traditions such as cabaret and musical theater with more experimental forms. "Paris Commune" looks back at a time when artists were important public figures - among the commune't sleaders were the painter Gustave Courbet and composer Eugene Pottier, who wrote the lyrics to the socialist anthem "The Internationale" - and all of the Civilians' work takes seriously the notion that artists should be engaged with the great questions of the day.

"Their work functions in the best tradition of theater, in that it has a message, but the message is presented in the highest theatrical form," said Shirley Fishman, who is overseeing the project from her perch as the playhouse's associate artistic director. "The thing I'm startled by is how these two wonderful artists have been able to capture and harness the unflagging energy and passion of everyone involved. It's not fake. It's one spirit, one goal."

That espirit de corps is the desired outcome for the Playhouse's innovative Page-to-Stage program, now in its fourth season. Participants past and present agree that the ability to do three weeks of rehearsals in combination with three weeks of critic-free performances allows the work to develop in meaningful ways. For the cabaret-influenced, collaboratively inclined Civilians, who have workshopped "Paris Commune" twice over the last year, playing for 24 audiences just might prime the show for a full production.

"We produced it ourselves for five shows, which was all that we could afford, and after the fourth, we got to, 'Now we know how we need to fix it,' but it was too late," Friedman said. "Here, we get a full run with no critics, so we're able to do what we think we should do without worrying about just cleaning up the show for opening, and who cares if it's finished or not, because the critics are coming. The pressure we feel is just the pressure to make the show better, which is enough."

As soon as they wrap up performances in La Jolla, Cosson and Friedman will turn their attention to the company's latest piece, "Nobody's Lunch," which grew out of a concern that the current administration was less than truthful about the war in Iraq and its connection to the larger terrorist threat.

Billed as an exploration of "the politics of information and how we know what we know," the show opens this fall in New York, not long after the Republican National Convention and accompanying media circus will have packed up and gone.

"On a gut level, it came from a genuine questioning: How can ideas that make no sense on a straightforward level be accepted?" Cosson said. "But reality is always more complex and interesting than you can ever imagine."