Thursday, June 19, 2008

In 'This Beautiful City,' Musical Storytelling Is Born Again

By Peter Marks

To get to "This Beautiful City," proceed to the junction of PBS and Broadway. The storytelling style of the Civilians, a savvy young troupe of New York actors, is to immerse themselves in a subject, interview a lot of people, compose a few songs and edit all the material into what amounts to a lyrical piece of journalism.

Think of yourself as holding a ticket to "Frontline: The Musical."

On the occasion of "This Beautiful City," a brand-new piece getting up on its feet at Studio Theatre, the company is tackling the subject of evangelical Christianity. The city in question, temporally speaking, is Colorado Springs, headquarters of New Life mega-church, a 14,000-member congregation that until two years ago was under the spiritual management of the Rev. Ted Haggard.

Fortunately for the Civilians, the Haggard sexual scandal broke -- for those of you keeping track of faith-based peccadilloes, this one involved allegations of drug use and homosexual infidelity -- while they were out in the Rockies researching the work. As a result, the sharp, invigorating "Beautiful City" has some of the heat it might otherwise have lacked, tackling a topic so vast and prone to easy stereotype.

The production's six excellent performers -- four of whom were among those conducting the interviews in Colorado -- assume the identities of various members of New Life and other churches, as well as pastors, apostates and cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, which is also based there. These encounters, knitted into a script by Jim Lewis and Steven Cosson (who also directs it), are supposed to offer insight into the permutations of fundamentalist Christianity. A lot of time is spent inside the churches themselves, examining, for instance, the melding of revival-meeting fervor and rock-concert fever during a New Life youth ministry.

The Civilians want to appear to be fair-minded reporters, at least up to a point. Audiences, no doubt, will hear what they want to hear. At my performance, spectators had their antennae up for any telltale sign of hypocrisy in the statements of church leaders. And by virtue of the self-serving posturing that "This Beautiful City" dramatizes, you are in fact steered to the sense of an institution desperate to sanitize and protect itself. After the scandal comes to light, Haggard is reported to have been "called away on a pastoral emergency."

Later, a New Lifer is quoted as praising the disgraced minister for pitch-perfect humility. "Even in repentance," he declares, "Ted modeled how to do it right."

The production sets to original songs (by Michael Friedman) moments of both reverence and irreverence: Purported explanatory e-mails from Haggard to his flock are put to music and sung as recitative by Brad Heberlee. In other interludes, the actors wander among us with their arms held toward heaven, singing piously.

All the while, a mural-size photograph of a snow-capped mountain (Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs) looms over Debra Booth's clean, simple set; a pair of flat TV screens hang, akin to the video screens in a sprawling church, at stage left and right. Intermittently, the testimony shifts to that other key ingredient of Colorado Springs life, the outdoors: The actors now wear park-ranger gear and recite to us from guidebooks to the Rockies.

Exposure to this other facet of God's country seems altogether apt, for instruction about keeping to the right path is a preoccupation all through the show.

The actors speak directly to the audience, as if we were the ones behind the microphone. Although this device is an attempt to integrate us into the troupe's playmaking process, there are times that this egalitarian, information-gathering style leaves a vacuum. When a play's main character is a concept rather than a person, a production's emotional content can feel underdone. Some characters do recur in "This Beautiful City." But it would have been useful if some of the interviews had dug more deeply, had fleshed out stories that could have given the piece more of an emotional anchor.

Even so, the Civilians reveal, often in vibrant detail, the life of a city in which the evangelical community has become such a force. Emily Ackerman, a vital link in Arena Stage's presentation last fall of "Well," again does impressive work here, as, among others, a woman of formerly wild impulses who has found God.

Matthew Dellapina provides crackling portraits of a local muckraker and the irate father of a Jewish Air Force Academy cadet. Heberlee masters the placidity of a practiced church mouthpiece, and Marsha Stephanie Blake, Stephen Plunkett and Aysan Celik round out a very smooth ensemble.

Under Cosson's direction, the 2 1/2 -hour evangelical travelogue occasionally succumbs to bloat: Attempting to be fairly evenhanded, the troupe disgorges too many of its notebooks. By and large, however, the show unfolds as a smart, evocative set of impressions of the born-again revolution, its followers and naysayers, its folkways, beliefs and pieties.

This Beautiful City, by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Cosson. Musical staging, Chase Brock; sets and projections, Debra Booth; lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Lorraine Venberg; sound, Erik Trester; music direction, Gabriel Mangiante; drums, Anders Eliasson; bass, Robin Rhodes. About 2 hours 30 minutes. Through June 29 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Civilians' Reality Theater Gets Religion: With 'This Beautiful City,' Church Meets Cabaret

By Nelson Pressley

"Let me tell you something," says an actor while playing a real-life pastor at the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs. "God made representative government. It's His idea. We talked about that in Samuel."

As the sermon goes on, the documentary-style show "This Beautiful City" tightens the link between church and politics. A New York troupe called the Civilians is rehearsing this production at Studio Theatre -- the same weekend that Barack Obama has resigned his longtime membership in his Chicago church -- and the company is using verbatim dialogue culled from its interviews in Colorado.

The Civilians' months of meticulous research also yielded another element: songs. "You want your freedom," sings the six-member cast, playing the choir at New Life. "You don't know freedom. It's not the ability to do what you want . . . "

This quirky blend of fact and melody has made the Civilians a bit of a downtown phenomenon in New York, and their profile is about to widen dramatically with "This Beautiful City." The show was a hit this spring at Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, and it's already booked for Los Angeles's Center Theatre Group and New York's Vineyard Theatre. Slimmed and revised since Louisville, it begins previews today at Studio.

"The point," says writer, director and company founder Steven Cosson, "is to throw ourselves into something totally different that we may not know much about."

"I tend to get pleasure out of putting my nose in everyone's business," Civilians composer-lyricist Michael Friedman says with a puckish grin.

This singular format was a happy accident that crossed their unexpectedly harmonious talents. Cosson, who grew up in Potomac, studied research-based theater as a graduate student at the University of California at San Diego. When he started the Civilians in 2001, he knew he wanted to draw from real life. ("The creative investigation of actual experience" is how the company's mission statement reads.) But he didn't know what shape he wanted the shows to take.

Cabaret emerged as an option when he teamed with Friedman, and that first year they created "Gone Missing," a piece about, um, things gone missing -- shoes, pets, Atlantis. A company of actors interviewed people on the theme; Cosson wrote and directed, and Friedman added songs. The show has toured widely and never really left the repertoire, popping up again last year in New York.

"In a sense, cabaret was the door that opened the possibility to create a different kind of theater," Cosson says. Subsequent projects have dealt with the fallibility of public information ("Nobody's Lunch"); the 1871 revolution in France ("Paris Commune," which used songs from the period); and even their own early incompetence in "Canard, Canard, Goose?" -- their no-go exposé of the mistreatment of fowl in the movie "Fly Away Home."

You'd think all that reality would tie a composer's hands, but Friedman doesn't see it that way. The Philadelphia native describes himself variously as a musical anthropologist and a magpie, raiding styles to see what fits.

"I'm a big throw-it-at-the-wall guy," says Friedman, whose intermittent "Beautiful City" songs sample a range from cowboy vaudeville to New Age gospel. "I'm not interested in a Michael Friedman style."

It's a coincidence, he says, that he is involved with another religion-themed musical: the just-opened "Saved" at Playwrights Horizons, a show based on the 2004 movie set in a Christian high school. Friedman thinks it's less fluky, though, that he and Cosson were in Colorado when Ted Haggard, founder and leader of the New Life Church, resigned on the eve of the 2006 election during his sex-and-drugs scandal. After all, evangelism and electoral politics had captured Cosson's imagination during the 2004 campaign, when President Bush's ties to the religious community suggested a subject Cosson wanted to explore.

So, in 2006, several members of the Civilians spent extended time in Colorado Springs, chosen for its reputation as "the Vatican of the evangelical right," as one resident puts it. (Another reason it apparently appealed was because competing ballot initiatives on same-sex couples -- a fight chronicled in the show -- were in the political wind; intolerance is a through-line of the kaleidoscopic piece.) By design, the voyage was culture shock.

"That world was terra incognita for me," Cosson says.

"I was definitely scared to go there," says company member Emily Ackerman, one of five singer-actors who conducted interviews with Cosson, Friedman and writer Jim Lewis. "I'm liberal, I live in liberal cities. And everything we hear is that they are hateful people, legislating against friends of mine."

Cosson and Friedman didn't know what they'd find; Friedman said the running joke was, "I hope there's a show there." And then the Haggard scandal broke.

"It was like a freight train ran into our show," Friedman recalls.

Ackerman, who spent seven months in "Gone Missing," thinks this is the most accurate Civilians show yet, with less of what she calls the troupe's usual stylistic "filtering" and more straightforward presentation. The people she plays in the show include a young Christian mother and a transsexual identified as TGirl Christian -- both of whom saw the show during a presentation in Colorado Springs, and who asked her to broker an introduction.

"It would be easy to send these people up," Ackerman says. "It would be mean, it wouldn't be good art and it wouldn't be interesting."

She adds: "If our show can get people talking who would never talk except on opposite sides of a picket line, that's good preachin'."

Cosson, who says sitting in a megachurch service with 3,000 congregants was "revelatory," figures that's an upside of the Civilians' method.

"Their world becomes linked to your world," he says. "We could not have created this show by commissioning a writer to write a play on this subject."

Friedman repeatedly champions the collaborative nature of what the company does, but notes that it can make the work hard to categorize. Paradoxically, that could box the Civilians into a self-created niche.

"We're not letting outside expectations define what we do," Friedman says. "Because then we're screwed."


Friday, June 6, 2008

The Moving Power Of Faith and Music

By Christina Talcott

What's the best way to document the rise of the evangelical Christian megachurch? For Michael Friedman, the answer was clear: a musical.

Of course, that's what you'd expect from a guy who makes his living writing musicals. Starting Wednesday, audiences can judge for themselves when Friedman's show, "This Beautiful City," has its world premiere at the Studio Theatre.

The latest project by the New York theater group the Civilians is the product of dozens of interviews with people with diverse opinions about the evangelical church movement. Friedman, along with troupe founder Steve Cosson and fellow writer Jim Lewis, spent almost nine months in Colorado Springs, Colo., which in the past two decades has been transformed into a home for more than 100 Christian organizations, including the 10,000-plus-member New Life Church, which figures prominently in the show.

Sound like a stretch? "Music is a big part of the evangelical churches and exists there very naturally, which is quite wonderful," Friedman says. "But I also believe that music allows different emotional responses and different ways into the lives of the people speaking."

While Cosson and Lewis worked on the script, Friedman was tasked with writing the score. Friedman, who says he comes from "many generations of nonbelievers," wasn't prepared for the power of the music he heard at some churches. "It's incredible. The bands are unbelievable, the lights and the sound and just the size of some of the bands. It's like going to an amazing rock concert."

As for his lyrics, many of them "are based directly on interview material," which Friedman calls "a nice way to get inside a character's head." After all, the show is about people in Colorado Springs, from preachers to nonbelievers, and explores issues as specific as evangelicals' influence on the nearby U.S. Air Force Academy and as general as the separation of church and state.

Friedman and the Civilians were in Colorado Springs when New Life founder Ted Haggard left the church in 2006 after a nationally publicized sex and drugs scandal.

Although the show addresses that incident and includes characters who have broken from their faith, Friedman says "This Beautiful City" is more about "the connections that people who aren't in evangelical churches can make to people who are and what that means. Once you have made that connection, what have you learned? And, more importantly, what do you leave behind?"

This Beautiful City Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. Wednesday-June 29. $39 to $57. This Beautiful City Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. Wednesday-June 29. $39 to $57.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A turn toward history we need: Paris Commune at the Public Theater in New York

By Sandy English

Paris Commune, written by Steven Cosson and J. Michael Friedman, directed by Steven Cosson, and performed by The Civilians at the Public Lab Series Workshop at the Public Theater in New York City, April 4 to 20

Paris Commune, staged recently at the Public Theater in New York, is a musical about the first government established by the working class, which ruled the French capital from March 18 until May 28, 1871, when bourgeois troops crushed it and massacred thousands.

The artistic quality of the work and the seriousness with which the creators treat the material make this theatrical piece unusual in the current cultural environment, especially in the US. It suggests that the general restiveness and discontent in artistic circles is beginning to find a more focused expression.

Plays and other works of art about the lives of ordinary people are not entirely lacking, but a consideration of those moments when daily life becomes charged with great historical purpose has been more or less off the map for most artists.

In Paris Commune, we are presented with a thoroughgoing and lively presentation of precisely one of those moments in history.

Writers Steven Cosson and J. Michael Friedman uncovered new material from primary sources for this work. They present facets of French life often missing from accounts of the Commune—in particular, with the Public Theater production’s 14 songs and dance numbers, the popular culture of Paris in the 1870s.

The play lets the workers of Paris speak for themselves, but it fills in many of the gaps in historical knowledge that a contemporary American audience might have. (For that matter, the Commune is not widely taught in French schools, either.) At one point, for example, the play combines a lesson in French revolutions from 1789 to 1871 with a dance number that simultaneously teaches the history of the famous dance, the can-can. This scene, literally breathless, puts the Commune in context as the final and greatest revolutionary struggle of the nineteenth century.

The writers, of course, can’t fill in all the blanks in 90 minutes. A sense of the French Second Empire (1852-1870) and its Napoleon III is largely missing. That is a shame, too, since the period resembles our own in many ways: the frantic greed of the ruling classes, the social polarization, the stifling political atmosphere, the constant military adventures and provocations, a vulgar and dimwitted ruler.

The link between defeat in war and social revolution, whose close relationship the next century was to demonstrate so vividly, is also understated. The immediate cause of the Commune was a major setback for the French military in the Franco-Prussian War.

German armies routed the Emperor Napoleon III on September 2, 1870, at the Battle of Sedan and captured him along with over 100,000 of his soldiers. A day after news of this debacle reached Paris, the masses of the city revolted and a new Republic was established.

German troops soon besieged Paris. A new government under the veteran political operator Adolf Thiers negotiated peace terms, but the working population of Paris began to flood into the militia and the National Guard to help defend the city.

In working-class neighborhoods, the Guards began to elect officers from the various socialist parties to a Central Committee, which shortly afterward became the political leadership of the Parisian working class.

Thiers attempted to disarm the National Guard by removing heavy cannon from Paris on March 18, but the Guard, supported by civilians, including many women, confronted the regular army on a hill called Butte Montmartre.

When the actors recreate the events of March 18 on Montmartre, they throw themselves in pantomime in front the cannon and appeal to the soldiers. We hear a narration of events from the journals of participants and other eyewitness accounts.

The commander ordered his troops to fire into the crowd, but his soldiers refused (and later shot him). Soldiers defected to the insurgents, and the entire city was under the control of the Central Committee of the National Guard within a day. Thiers and his government fled to Versailles, 12 miles away. On March 28, the workers of Paris elected a representative body called the Commune.

The play begins not with the insurrection of March 18, but toward the end of the Commune, as a female narrator (Aysan Celik) stands alone on a sparsely furnished stage and asks the audience to imagine the Tuileries in Paris, the old palace of the French kings next to the Louvre, now the legendary art museum.

She conjures up a concert that took place there on May 21, 1871. She invites us to visualize the audience at the show, the canaille, which, she tells us, can be translated as “the scum,” and refers to the Parisian working class.

This is perhaps one of the most effective strategies of the play’s creators. The New York audience is pulled into the song and popular culture of the day, hearing something that the people of Paris heard. The audience goes to concerts, too, and it can attend the same concert, in its imagination, as the Paris audience of 137 years ago. The result is both distant and familiar.

A popular performer of the day, Rosa Bordas (Kate Buddeke), sings her outraged La Canaille to the imaginary audience, in which she identifies herself with the revolution: “They are the lowest scum/but so am I.” After this, she sings the melodious Le Temps des Cerises (Cherry Time).

The irony of this second song remains unclear until the piece is nearly over and one learns that a few hours after the concert took place, troops from the bourgeois government in Versailles entered the city and drowned the Commune in blood, killing many who were in the audience that day. The Tuileries itself burned down, never to be rebuilt.

The play shows a baker and his tailor wife (Jeremy Shamos and Aysan Celik), who embody the Parisian masses, the real hero of this work, and the audience encounters the foul-mouthed Le Père Duchêne (Sam Breslin Wright), the personification of a satirical left-wing newspaper of the day. The tone of the dialogue is humorous and sometimes hilarious.

Adolf Thiers (Brian Sgambati), in frock coat and top hat, demands bourgeois order and promises clemency to the Parisians in an electronically modified voice. It is not hard to image what the double-crosser is really planning.

The international orientation of the Commune, which declared its solidarity with a “world republic” is brought across by an explanation and singing of the Internationale, written by Eugene Pottier, a participant in the Commune. The song remains the best-known anthem of the international socialist movement.

The renowned painter Gustave Courbet appears, demanding that rich artists support poor ones. He represents another side of the cultural framework of the Commune. A significant artistic figure of his age, his work was recently the subject of a major retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Courbet was in charge of protecting the Paris museums during the Commune, and he was known as an advocate of its great symbolic act—the pulling down of the Vendôme Column. The painter argued that the column, erected by the first Napoleon and refurbished by Napoleon III, tended to perpetuate “the ideas of war and conquest of the past imperial dynasty, which are reproved by a republican nation’s sentiment,” and was devoid of artistic merit.

The play also highlights the differences within the new revolutionary government. An anarchist tendency asserts that Paris should be an autonomous city in a federation along with other autonomous municipalities. Others, on the other hand, seek to extend the revolution to the rest of France, where, indeed, workers in various cities were beginning to set up their own Communes.

The taking and holding of power by the working class was a new historical problem. Socialism, furthermore, had not fully emerged from its utopian phase, and there was a generally a strong influence of sectional interests representing older handicraft methods of production that tended to find an expression in ideas of local autonomy, political dilettantism and hostility to centralized military action.

Many leaders of the Commune were followers of such figures as Louis-Auguste Blanqui (who was arrested by Thiers shortly before the Commune), known for his advocacy of revolutionary conspiracy, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (whom Courbet admired), the ideological representative of small shop owners and one of the founders of anarchism.

The play shows us the Communards debating whether the National Guard should march on Versailles. Louise Michel (Jeanine Serralles), the anarchist schoolteacher, says, “No, the revolution means an end to aggression of all sorts.” Elisabeth Dmtrieff (Nina Hellman), a supporter of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International), is for open civil war with Versailles.

Dmtrieff reads out Karl Marx’s letter to the German socialist leader Wilhelm Liebknecht: “It seems the Parisians are succumbing. It is their own fault, but a fault which really was due to their too great decency. The Central Committee and later the Commune gave that mischievous degenerate, Thiers, time to consolidate hostile forces...they should immediately have advanced on Versailles.”

By early April, Communards and Versailles troops were skirmishing on the outskirts of the city. The Prussians released French prisoners of war to supply troops to Thiers, and by the final week of May, street fighting began in which both sides used arson as a weapon of war. The Communards were outmatched by the discipline of the Versailles troops, who were already used to guerilla warfare from their experiences against the Germans.

The government forces were merciless. The week of May 21 is known as La Semaine sanglante, the bloody week. Unarmed men, women, and children were summarily shot by the Versailles troops. The Commune had executed seven hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris (who blamed Thiers for his fate before he died), in response to the shooting of prisoners by Thiers, but in the last week of May 1871, by best estimates, the Versailles troops, under the command of General Patrice Mac-Mahon, shot between 20,000 and 30,000 Parisian workers and members of their families.

The production at the Public Theater depicts these massacres on a dimly lit stage. The actors contort their bodies as imaginary bullets enter them. The execution of one group of prisoners represents the shooting of 147 Communards against a wall at the Pére Lachaise cemetery, known today as the Mur des Fédérés (Wall of the Communards). Among the survivors, 13,000 were jailed and more than 4,000 were sent into exile to New Caledonia in the south Pacific, including Louise Michel.

The play brings forward a great social struggle that involved immense thought, energy and sacrifice. It is an imperishable part of the history of the international working class and socialist movement. Those who came to the Public Theater knowing little about the Commune had the opportunity to have a critical event illuminated for them. One wonders how anyone who has seen the piece could ever again read about a major protest or a strike in France without thinking of the 1871 uprising.

The acting was solid and energetic. Most performers played more than one character. Sometimes it was hard for them to keep up: not every cast could have simultaneously danced and narrated a portion of French history at the same time as they offered the history of the can-can. The singing in the play was remarkably good, in particular that of Iva who played the Soprano, representing the bourgeois in Versailles, and sang, among other pieces, Offenbach’s Ah, Comme J’Aime les Militaires! (Oh, I how I love men in uniforms!).

The costumes projected a feel for the nineteenth century, but were somewhat slapdash, and the production overall had a little more of an unfinished feel than it needed to. Asking the audience to use its imagination was fine, but the choice of props might have been a little more selective. Adolf Thiers, for example, did not need a microphone.

Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, Paris Commune was the weakest when it tried to describe the reverberations of the Commune in later periods of history.

In an epilogue, we hear that the Commune lived on in moments like the French student and worker revolts of 1968 or the singing of the Internationale by students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 before the brutal crackdown by the Stalinist regime.

But the writers eclectically mix these events, moments when the issues of political power that were first posed in the Commune were deeply relevant, with other incidents, such as the minting of a commemorative medal by the German Democratic Republic in 1971 and the anti-World Trade Organization protests of the late 1990s.

The East German Stalinist regime observed the Commune to mask its own suppression of the socialist aspirations of the working class, including the 1953 uprising by Berlin workers. One must strain to find the echoes of the Commune in the anti-WTO protests as well, which was a protest and reform movement, not an uprising of the working class.

Most of all, the incarnation of the Commune at a higher level in the Russian Revolution of 1917 is missing. As the World Socialist Web Site noted in 2001 in a discussion of Peter Watkins’s film La Commune:

“Wars and revolutions, and similar earthshaking events, continue to gain significance in human consciousness as subsequent developments shed light retroactively on them. History adds truth to them, so to speak. It is almost impossible to consider certain events in isolation, they have so obviously been ‘completed’ by others that come after them.”

Paris Commune might have considered other moments in history when the Commune—and its problems—truly lived again, such as the 1956 uprising of the Hungarian workers (who established their own councils) against the Stalinist regime, when the Soviet forces played the role of repressor.

This is not primarily the fault of the writers, who did a serious and thorough job of researching this piece and present the Commune honestly and on its own terms. The epilogue simply reveals the production of Paris Commune as an expression of the current cultural environment. The question—What happened to the titanic struggle for socialism?—has yet to receive a serious response from or even be seriously posed in the minds of most contemporary playwrights and other artists.

It is also worth noting that it was the Public Theater’s Lab Series that featured Paris Commune. The Public Theater is one of the most prominent venues in the off-Broadway theater world, and its Lab Series has recently produced other works with themes that look to larger historical contexts, such as The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson, which concerns civil rights activists, the KKK, and the FBI; the late playwright John Belluso’s The Poor Itch, about a disabled veteran returning from Iraq; and Naomi Wallace’s The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East.

Those interested in learning more about the Paris Commune itself will find Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France indispensable. Northwestern University’s McCormack Library has a digital collection of photographs and other images from the Commune at its The Siege and Commune of Paris, 1870-1871 website.