Putting history on stage can be challenging when the figures aren’t well known. Playwrights must provide much historical context, and after months or years of researching their lives, it can be hard to maintain audience perspective. Two of this year’s Fertile Ground Festival plays by Portland writers involving historical figures from the early 20th century smacked into both roadblocks. But with some repairs, both might make fascinating history-inspired dramas.
“This isn’t a historical drama!” cautioned Laura Christina Dunn, the multitalented singer/songwriter/multi instrumentalist/ writer at a talkback after a staged Fertile Ground reading of her new Rosa Red at Portland’s My Music. But it turned out that the audience did need to learn more of the basics of the early 20th century socialist/feminist/pacifist Rosa Luxemburg’s eventful life than appeared in this early incarnation of her show. Not just because she’s the title character, or because of her historical importance, but so we can fully understand what’s at stake: destroying capitalism to save humanity, and why it meant so much to her that she was willing to risk her life for it.
At the talkback, at least one audience member said he wasn’t even sure Rosa was a real historical character. She sure was, and a captivating one at that, but the details of her life probably aren’t too familiar to many of today’s Americans. Program notes can provide some background, and the show uses Luxemburg’s own letters to supply more. But because she wrote them from prison, locked up for seditious behavior, the fiery activist had to use innocuous or coded language, which requires still more explication.
We don’t need need a full biography because Rosa Red isn’t really about its title character. The musical focuses on the dilemma of the recipient of those missives. Sophie Liebknecht is torn between two newborns: her friend Rosa’s revolutionary ardor (shared by Sophie’s husband Karl) for the birth of a new world, and Sophie’s own need to nurture and protect her baby from the repercussions of standing up to state violence, the violence that put Rosa in prison in the first place and ultimately killed her and Karl. Had it not already been taken, Sophie’s Choice might have made an apter title.
Dunn’s choice to position Sophie at the nexus between two perennial conflicts — between security and liberty, and between the personal and political — is timely today, almost a century after Rosa’s murder. Dunn, also the immensely creative force behind Atlantis last year (ArtsWatch review) and other Broken Planetarium productions, revealed in her talkback that the show was inspired by her own conflicted tuggings after the 2016 elections, when she felt torn between her duties to her own young child and her country. It’s a dilemma many are experiencing.
But that motivation doesn’t clearly emerge until a touching song about two-thirds of the way into the story. Until then, Sophie is a passive protagonist, buffeted this way and that by the passions of those around her. As Dunn explained in the talkback, we don’t really know exactly what the real Sophie thought because her replies to Luxemburg haven’t survived. That leaves ample room for the playwright to imagine her response in what is after all “not a historical drama!” But despite a compelling subject and some characteristically catchy songs, Rosa Red poses a couple of fundamental dramatic dilemmas for Dunn to solve by the time its full production debuts at Portland’s Clinton Street Theater in May.
Sometimes I’ve had to tell students the most dreaded two words of my writing courses: “blank screen.” That’s the rare recommendation when a student has gotten so bogged down in a previous version of a story, even though its thrust has changed through feedback or subsequent research, that it’s no longer salvageable by nips and tucks. The old version has worn ruts that only completely new ground can avoid. Sometimes, you just have to start from scratch, lest the old artifacts, no matter how valuable, drag the new story down like pirates piling heavy treasure chests from their sinking ships into their life rafts.
That may be the prescription for Brad Bolchunos’s intriguing Spellbinders, whose second incarnation received a staged reading at Portland’s Literary Arts. Around the same time Rosa and Sophie were corresponding in Germany, Russian scientist Leon Theremin was working to develop motion sensors for the new Soviet military. He also had a personal project: figuring out how an earlier scientist, Franz Mesmer, had cured a soon-to-be-famous pianist of her blindness that seemed to have no physical cause.
The play chronicles the half-mad Theremin’s imagined visits to a 1777 Viennese salon where Mesmer is treating famous pianist Maria Theresia Paradis through a technique we now call hypnotism — which gets him accused of witchcraft. Meanwhile, Theremin’s suspicious apparatchik lab manager similarly regards his Mesmeric pursuits as at best a distraction from his important military work, at worst a threat reminiscent of Rasputin’s recent charlantism that helped discredit and bring down the Czarist regime. “Showmanship or shamanship?” one character asks, a century before Get Out reminded us how potentially spooky hypnotism can be.
Theremin, we learn, has a good reason for trying to divine Mesmer’s method of seeking the source of Paradis’s psychosomatic blindness in a childhood trauma: it may have healing implications for Theremin’s own neurological/psychological damage. The play enacts a pair of parallel quests to find and confront the source of two characters’ inner pain. Kudos to Bolchunos for finding and cleverly juxtaposing these analogous historical stories.
But they both demand a lot of ‘splaining for those of us who know Theremin chiefly for the zingy instrument he invented around this time that lent eerie atmosphere to The Day the Earth Stood Still, Spellbound, and other mid-century films, leading to a profusion of theremin-like sounds in everything from Star Trek to “Good Vibrations.” (A documentary showed that he had a colorful career after these events too.) This performance did boast a theremin performer who did a brief demo of his “ether music,” as well as a Russian history expert who testified to the accuracy of the play’s depiction of Russian attitudes of the time.
There’s a lot of context to be conveyed here — early Soviet history, early psychotherapy, explanations of hypnotism, etc. and that’s just the 20th century segments. If Rosa Red supplied insufficient context, Spellbinders may provide too much, at least in a digestible form. With much early exposition intoned in relatively stiff (to 21st century ears) formal paragraphs by Theremin’s fellow scientist Ioffe, Spellbinders’ first act sags under its weight, further hampered by some developments that don’t really advance what turns out to be the real story.
After all this sometimes slogging set up, the play finally really gets going in the final act, and then Theremin’s realizations and changes in attitude and affect seem to occur pretty abruptly. Here, I noticed some of the pages in the actors’ scripts were blue. Evidently, Bolchunos added them to this incarnation of the play (an earlier version was produced in 2012), and unlike many of the earlier white pages, these passages sparkle and snap. Dialogue seemed tighter and much funnier and lines shorter, yet with no loss of important information. A blank screen may be needed to fully recharge the first half with today’s energy. If the rest of Spellbinders could achieve the lift, momentum and crisp action of the new, blue pages, it might live up to its title.
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