Berkeley Rep's 'Paradise Square' Aims For High-Quality Creativity And Unfortunately Hits The Mark

In considering the case of the Berkeley Rep’s new musical Paradise Square under the direction of Moisés Kaufman, with a book by Marcus Gardley, choreography by Bill T. Jones, and music by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (also the lyricist), we might rightfully ask whose show this is. After all, Craig Lucas is also listed as writing the book along with Gardley and Kirwin, though Lucas seems absent from most of the show’s promotional material. And strangely enough there’s a “conceived by” credit for Kirwan. I wonder if this is an entirely new artistic field—

“Mom, dad, I’m majoring in artistic conception!”

And let’s not forget Stephen Foster, America’s first pop composer, whose music is cribbed throughout the evening, most effectively at the end with his wistful, “Beautiful Dreamer.” He’s also a character who in the second act is accused of artistic appropriation, not so much copyright violations, as life or cultural theft. It’s a charge the musical makes with great conviction, though not a great deal of thought. So, we should ask who should get the credit or blame for all this? Who is the author?

It’s a question that’s haunted a good part of the 20th century, the tether edges between modernism and post-modernism where both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault suggest that the author might be less than we imagined or possibly just imagined. Barthes was intent on severing writing from the author, the notion that somehow the work is a reflection or extension of the artist. Perhaps more radically, Foucault saw the author as a subject of social energies, a place where transgression, power, and the law meet.

As these ideas migrated to America—Foucault taught at UC Berkeley and, who knows, he might have caught a show or two at the Berkeley Rep—we (not royal, but American) gave them a new world spin. Authorship became both sacrosanct and dangerous. The author was the source of all meaning, but strangely, and Foucault probably would have loved this, the locus of every possible societal transgression: a god, yes, but one in need of constant monitoring and surveillance.

Paradise Square is the unwitting product of that situation, what we might call the crisis of authorship in American theater. In many ways what the musical is about is beside the point, though its plot and aspirations are telling to say the least. In its seriousness, it obliterates any possibility of artistic ambition, wildness, freedom, and scope. Its goal is to parrot conventional sensibilities and give them a high culture sheen of political and social importance. There’s no author here, only a producer selling the idea of high-quality creativity.

So let’s get to the plot and things

It’s right before the Civil War and we’re led to believe that in the violent, crowded Five Points neighborhood of New York city there was a moment in time, a brief bit of paradise, where Irish immigrants and free Blacks achieved a kind of racial harmony. The musical begins with a coda, a dream of what was lost and its future possibility or partial realization in our times—a kind of here-was-a-moment moment.

So we begin and end with the regrets and utopian dreams of an African-American woman, Annabelle “Nelly” Freeman, whose fiancée, Willie O’Brien (a white Irish immigrant), leaves to fight for the Union and dies on the battlefield. Nelly inherits the bar and runs it with Willie’s sister, the hard talking, gun-slinging Annie O’Brien who is married to an African-American minister. They continue to serve free blacks and white immigrants , but as the Civil War looms in the background, the imperfect peace of this neighborhood bar becomes increasingly fraught.

Irish immigrants are being drafted to serve on the frontlines of the Union Army, the very definition of cannon fodder, and free Blacks struggle with myriad injustices—banned from serving in the Army, and stuck fighting for work and survival in New York’s most violent and poorest neighborhood.

Into this mix we get a Ragtime’s worth of characters: Henry “Juba” Lane, an escaped slave with a price on his head and the best dancer in 5 Points; Owen Duigan, Annie’s nephew newly arrived from Ireland and apparently the second best dancer in 5 Points; the Stephen Foster, well-known composer, penniless, and looking for new inspiration and money.

Not to mention Lane’s great love, another escaped slave Angelina Baker, Annie’s husband, Minister Samuel E. Cornish, also an escaped slave (his secret) as well as a key member of the Underground Railroad, and a large number of Irish and Black characters who like the Jets and Sharks are always on the brink of a fight. That it ends in a dance off in the middle of the largest riot in American history lands somewhere between notable and nuts.

Okay, now that that’s straight

If all this seems ambitious, it is on a theoretical level. But theory is a long way from practice and that’s where the question of authorship rears its problematic and ugly head. Barthes and Foucault were arguing at cross-purposes. Barthes wanted the author to disappear so that the text, writing, could flourish in the experience of readers (why should it matter if Balzac were good or bad, tall or short) and Foucault saw authorship as succumbing to power and the interests of the state, or as he put it the author-function.

But neither of them quite imagined the author as a ghost, as an idea rather than an individual who struggles to bring a world, a fiction to life. There’s a couple of key lines in the program that tells you everything you need to know about what’s wrong with Paradise Square. The first one is purely informational: “Producer Garth Drabinsky was excited by Larry’s concept and Larry sold him the rights to the musical.” The second is from outgoing artistic director Tony Taccone’s program notes: “This is an important story, and the creative team has applied their formidable talents to do it justice.”

Well, that’s right, not a writer or a composer, but a member of the creative team. Not a piece of art but a producer who owns the rights and puts together a product. Taccone is telling the truth, the creative team has “formidable talents” but the application of those talents is inorganic and arid. It’s the exact opposite of artistic creation as imagined by Barthes, Foucault, and anyone interested in life or its perversions.

Unbelievable in all the Wrong Ways

Many of the details are unbelievable. Take the use of the 5 Points neighborhood. There’s no doubt that free Blacks and Irish immigrants watched, learned, and mixed with each other of their own choosing and that good things came of it. One of them was the rise of tap, a melange of Irish and African dance. However, Paradise Square makes a virtue out of this to the logical exclusion of what was in historic terms one of the vilest places in the world—disease, rampant murder, every urban ill flourished there.

5 Points’ tentative racial détente was bound to implode and was clearly the product of inhuman circumstances and happenstance. A savvier script, take, philosophy, or sense of history would never let that type of naiveté fly. When excellent playwrights like Gardley and Lucas are truly engaged and responsible for the material, they excel in depicting whole, complex worlds. It’s the difference between writing out of need and passion and writing for assignment.

You can see that lack of fire in how the musical depicts poverty. At one point the dancing immigrant Duigan says that he’s filthy, but he sure doesn’t look like it, and, more tellingly, never acts like it. And the same is true for the rest of the characters. The level of cleanliness, both actual and spiritual, belies the logic of the musical’s 5 Points setting. As a simple counter-example, no one who watches Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths ever misses the bone-jarring poverty of the characters. They could all be dressed in haute couture and you still couldn’t escape the stench of their lives.

The commercial musical is just too limited for the subject matter. Instead of changing and challenging the form (as Taylor Mac and Dave Malloy do, or even Lin Manuel-Miranda) the Paradise Square project just piles talent on top of talent. Bill T. Jones’ choreography primary function is to compensate for the wobbly storytelling. Over and over again, background dancers demonstrate what the characters say on stage. That might sound like a neat aesthetic trick on the part of director Kaufman, but after the third or fourth time it comes off as empty, unfocussed, and rote.

The Nuttiness of Real Art

Why not just have us experience the story in all its ridiculous glory, that after all is a kind of commitment to reality and social change. Abstractly, there’s something winning about a dance contest in the middle of a riot where the two favorites—the Irish Duigan and the runaway slave Henry “Juba” Lane—are in dire need of the $300 prize money. A real piece of art would just let it fly, but Paradise Square is so serious about itself that it gins up the stakes and in the process falls into nonsense.

Anyone with a sense of math will be baffled (or amused) by the illogic surrounding the pay off in the climatic scene. You want to yell at everyone on stage to think, though no one offstage appears to have done so either. Without any kind of clear or rigorous sense of the world in which this happens, the whole jangly concept has no where to go and ends in a kind of public service announcement.

You know how it goes: the characters line up face front to the audience and tell us what happened to them after the events of the play are done. This has become increasingly popular as a means of pumping false life into dead dramas. We saw it last fall with J.T. Rodgers’ Oslo at MTC and Jacqueline Backhaus’ Men on Boats at ACT.

Oh well, at least there’s another refuge for scoundrels.

‘Paradise Square’ runs through February 24th at the Roda Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.