The world of theater has always had a politically leftward tilt (think of George Bernard Shaw). This is especially true in the nation’s big cities, namely in my hometown of Philadelphia. This is why I keep asking: why have so many theaters in my city forged a cultural alliance with the political Left?
This is not a quiet alliance, mind you, but a rather robust “in your face” ideological bond. Open-minded, sophisticated Philadelphia audiences are being told how to think about immigration, racism, and transgender issues as if the theater world had been taken over by Amy Schumer and the women on The View. In many ways it is like repetitive brainwashing minus the art.
The cultural Left’s transfiguration of the theater world here has been building for years, but it imploded with the election of President Trump. Staged scripts today are so anti-Trump that even the plays that do not mention Trump come equipped with Playbill bomb rhetoric like: “This play from history reflects our own politically troubled times”; or “This play from antiquity mirrors the threats to freedom and justice currently underway in the United States.”
The ideological fog is so thick one has to wonder how the upcoming production of The Phantom of the Opera will be described when it opens at the city’s majestic Academy of Music. Will Playbill render The Phantom as an orange orangutan from Washington?
A good example of Philadelphia’s leftist orthodoxy is the city’s leading comedy theater troupe, 1812 Productions. This highly talented group of actors staged its 12th annual political satire, This is The Week That Is, before the start of the New Year. Most of the material presented was all about — surprise! — President Trump. It’s a certainty that the show’s writers felt safe in assuming that audiences here would love everything that Trump hates: be it Angela Merkel, open borders, or sanctuary cities.
Although there was some objectivity in this year’s TITWTI — the show opened with a hilariously funny skit about third wave “pussy hat” feminism and its war on “man spreading” — that evaporated when one Trump joke followed another in machine gun repetition.
No poisoned satirical darts were thrown at Angela Merkel and the fine job she’s doing ruining Germany. And nothing was said about London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, who believes that terror attacks are “part and parcel of living in a big city.” The gloating, pastry-faced Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, who said that he welcomes reformed Jihadists into Canada because this “will help prevent radicalization,” was left untouched.
Aren’t leaders besides Trump ripe for satire? 1812 Productions did throw a few jibes in Hillary Clinton’s direction, but this attempt at “balance” had the sting of an empty bean bag. The show was a prime example of what happens when too much political correctness freezes the juices of unbiased political creativity.
This is The Week That Is reminded me of Michael Moore’s belief that satire will stop President Trump. “We need everybody to use their sense of humor and their comedy to bring him down, because his skin is so thin … discombobulate him with humor,” Moore said.
Before the election, Philadelphia’s InterAct Theater resurrected the Karl Marx legacy, Marx in Soho, for two full nights with an actor named Bob Weick playing the curmudgeonly advocate of orgies and co-author of The Communist Manifesto.
“Violence is the midwife of a new society,” Karl Marx once pined, “I will annihilate you!” Poor Marx hated fruits and veggies, overdrank, and rarely took baths. Critics labeled him an egotist and a lying intriguer. Weick has starred in this role for 12 years in over 200 productions. Written by Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), the play depicts Marx in the afterlife as he tries to clear his name and reputation from the list of character flaws listed above.
In another pre-election production, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning by Tim Price (Inis Nua Theatre Company) presented Manning as the victim of lifelong psychological battering long before WikiLeaks. PFC Bradley Manning, of course, became a cause celebre when he released thousands of classified government documents to WikiLeaks. One “document” was a video showing soldiers from Bronco Company 2nd Battalion 16th Infantry Regiment shooting civilians from an Apache helicopter in Iraq; 12 people were killed and two children injured. The video has been compared to Daniel Ellsberg’s October 1969 7,000 page Vietnam War document that was published as The Pentagon Papers. Yet how did a shy, gay, bullied computer nerd come to be known as American public enemy No. 1? On stage, Manning became SNL’s “Mr. Bill,” tortured and harassed by military peers 24/7. The script was an obsessive revisiting of Manning’s secondary school days in Wales, where he was taught to idolize Welsh political revolutionaries and where his heavy schooling in that revolutionary ideology formed the basis for his own revolt at WikiLeaks. The play wisely avoided Manning’s transformation into Chelsea.
The shift from “best-selling” theater hits to plays that challenge the mind has been building in the city for a long time. Much of it began with the founding of the Wilma Theater (whose honest motto is “Art has no answers at all”) in 1973. As a theater lover, I can tell you that the city’s “progressive” theater trends were welcoming at first. Yes, it was refreshing to see a black woman play Hamlet, or an androgynous actress play a pageboy, or to see love stories with interracial couples. It was fun to see some rigid orthodoxies being smashed. I like to say it was the theater equivalent of Pope John XXIII calling for a Second Vatican Council to bring fresh air into the Catholic Church.
Fresh air, however, can easily morph into a strong wind that disrupts and distorts.
Does every Hamlet or traditionally white Shakespearean character have to be black to prove a point about racism? Does every couple presented on stage have to be interracial? Does every boy in an Elizabethan play have to be played by a girl, as if to “instruct” the public on gender issues? Are boy actors really so rare?
Philadelphia’s Azuka Theater states that they “tell stories of outcasts and underdogs,” but what happens when every theater follows suit? Or when theater audiences everywhere accept so-called outcasts as the new normal?
I recently saw the Lantern Theater’s production of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy. In this play we observe the three thinkers as they futilely attempt to rewrite the Bible. Despite the stellar acting, the play’s ending fizzles in a flurry of condemnation when Jefferson is castigated for his having had slaves while simultaneously writing about human equality. History, however, tells us that in Jefferson’s time, slaves were considered subhuman. As bad as this sounds it should not be a license for obsessive condemnations of famous men based on contemporary standards.
Philadelphia’s upcoming 2018 theater season includes a play about African female initiation rites and “cultural pluralism.” The play promises to shatter “upending questions of privilege and Western morality.” The same theater will also offer a play about an American Muslim with traditional parents and a girlfriend who announces that he will undergo gender reassignment surgery. This work is slated for the summer months when hopefully, for the safety of all concerned, it will not be staged on a rooftop.