American History is a Bloody Mess, at least on the Stage

The past is always a tricky deal in the American theater. Many have said this is because we are so young and have no history to speak of, or at least not enough distance in the rearview mirror to gain artistic force or vision. Yet, it’s hard to think of a country that is as swathed in myth as we are. Next to Coca-Cola and corn syrup, the mythic past is what America does best. Still, giving theatrical shape to that past is no easy task. Our theater is littered with thousands of turgid costume pageants, half-baked political screeds, overwrought nostalgia -- everything but a historical conscious that is alive, dynamic, and dangerous.

In odd and interesting ways, Ray of Light Theatre, Custom Made Theatre, and the Magic Theatre are all currently running shows that attempt to catch history at the moment of conception. Not as it recedes into myth, but rather as it comes racing to life—you can barely wait for the havoc to begin. It's a wonderful test for any theater company: here are the limits of your art, your country, and your history. So what are you going to do now? It turns out the story of the week in Bay Area theater is attempting to answer this question.

Doggerel verse becomes Greek tragedy in Ray of Light's Lizzie

A rock musical about Lizzie Borden is a bad idea. But there aren’t enough bad ideas in the theater these days, and it’s exactly its complete lack of promise and taste that makes Ray of Light’s production of the Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner, Alan Stevens-Hewitt musical Lizzie such a triumph. The whole enterprise just kind of slips into the past to see what terror felt like in 1892, and the results are strange and lovely.

The tale of America’s premiere axe-murderess is well known, its doggerel verse recounting a schoolyard favorite. It’s in the psyche and that’s where the musical's creators keep it. They don’t bother with narrative, surprise endings, psychology, or-- even worse --empathy and understanding. The pure force of myth combines with over-the-top rock theatrics to create a mating of the ridiculous with the ridiculous that somehow takes us close to the sublime.

What’s surprising is how subtle and touching Borden’s story and the rock musical become under these conditions. Despite its riot-grrrl façade, Lizzie has a classical sense of form. The songs are not an intensification of feeling as they are in most musicals, but rather crucial to our understanding of the twists and turns of what we might initially think is a simple and well-known story. It’s rare for show tunes to require this much intellectual engagement, but every turn of phrase is a revelation. You know more, you feel more, and like Borden, you want to get closer to the abyss. Listen to her sing to pigeons in a barn loft—“The Soul of the White Bird”—and you’ll want to take her hand and gently place it on an axe.

The nimble “Shattercane and Velvet Grass,” sung during a chance encounter between Borden and her family’s maid, Bridget, illuminates how it easy it is to begin to think murder’s a swell idea. The song isn’t an explanation of Lizzie’s actions, but instead a demonstration of how a mind can slip into an idea, and how that slip leads to another slip, which leads to another, and another, and another, until: “Lizzie Borden with an axe/Gave her father forty wacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her mother forty-one.” When I think of the tremendous scope of Lizzie, it’s hard to believe that there are only four characters. But again, it’s closer to Sophocles than Nirvana, all the way down to the brutal off-stage murders.

Custom Made Theatre's This is Our Youth: a sly attempt at a present day historical drama

Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 hit This is Our Youth attempts something quite difficult: to catch the moment when one’s youth turns to stone and becomes a shining monument to our own irrelevance. He wants us see the past and the present at the same time and in the same person. Here, Lonergan says, is the exact second when our souls atrophy and history begins.

So, This is Our Youth is very much an x-ray, an autopsy disguised as an episode of Gossip Girl. The plot is pure soap: Warren steals $15,000 dollars from his dad and begs his high school pal and drug connection Dennis to crash at his pad. Dennis, always on the lookout for a deal, concocts a plan to score some cocaine, get high, resell what’s left, and make some profit before daddy discovers the loot is missing. Along the way, he’d like to get Warren laid, too. Enter the confused and available Jessica. Although this trio of amoral waifs is far from corrupt, their touch is vile and much more dangerous for their lack of awareness.

All this takes brio and precision to pull off and Custom Made’s production is far too tame to handle Lonergan’s caustic vision. The balance of the acting is crucial to the play. Sam Bertken and Katie Robbins are credible as Warren and Jessica. But as Dennis, David Raymond feels as if he’s acting a set of attributes rather than a character—being hyperactive is not the same as playing a hyperactive character. This is Our Youth is a sly attempt at a present day historical drama. Its history is not the past, but rather the sacrificial act that was so crucial to the Greeks: the awful moment when you trade your innocence for a snort and a fuck.

'Fred's Diner' at the Magic Theatre inverts historical logic

Right from the start, British dramatist Penelope Skinner’s Fred’s Diner performs a nice inversion of historical logic. The majority of the play is set in a kitschy American-style diner off a motorway in England, beautifully realized in Erik Flatmo’s striking set at the Magic Theatre. What matters here is not the great English past of Oxford, Shakespeare, and a thousand sly witticisms, but a tawdry, ersatz Americana. The play imagines a brutal equation: if that debased vision of America was the world, if it obliterated the past and any hope of the future, what would it take to escape? It’s the type of question parents ask when their child grows up to be a criminal.

Skinner has talent and she takes risks throughout. The first act courts boredom in a daring way. Except for the brief opening scene, the play buries us in the mundane tasks of working in a diner. But the playwright understands that the everyday is more precarious than the unique. When Fred’s best waitress and adopted daughter, Melissa, applies to Oxford to study law, that simple step unleashes a beast more appropriate to American pulp than English refinement.

And that’s just what Fred’s Diner needs, a good blast of cheap, American thrills. Skinner intends to shock, but her revelations feel like schoolroom exercises. And this is where Lizzie is instructive. We know the story of Lizzie Borden. It’s planted in our souls. Yet, every moment of that show is surprising. It’s as if we unlearn the myth as we watch it. Here, Skinner withholds crucial aspects of the plot and we’ve got her figured out before she even starts.

As these productions show, representing American history is a realist's nightmare. Our past is always of the moment. It slithers through Lizzie Borden's Fall River, Massachusetts, to New York City's haute bourgeois, and even back to a shabby English diner. Wherever it lands, its violence makes up for its youth. This is a country founded on ideas and those ideas have resisted history for 239 years. They will never be contained in costumes or facts, but must instead be fleetingly felt, like Lizzie allows us, in a headlong rush to the abyss. That's the dare for any theater company in America.

‘Lizzie’runs through October 17 at the Victoria Theater. For tickets and information click here.

 ‘ThisisOur Youth’runs through October 17 in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.

‘Fred'sDiner’runs through October 11 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.