Friday, July 12, 2013

Fear and Self-Loathing in The Cradle Will Rock

Martin Moran, Anika Noni Rose, and
Henry Stram perform "Art for Art's Sake."
Photo by Joan Marcus.
The Cradle Will Rock, by Marc Blitzstein. Directed by Sam Gold, choreographed by Chase Brock. Starring Anika Noni Rose, Danny Burstein, and Raul Esparza. Currently running at New York City Center through July 13th, 2013.

There's something peculiar going on when the actors at City Center Encores! are better dressed than the audiences. Particularly when the show is about the organization of a steel workers' union, and the characters include the union organizer, a vagrant former pharmacist, and a prostitute.

The Cradle Will Rock, perhaps better known for the attempts to block its initial performance in 1937 (dramatized in Tim Robbins' 1999 film Cradle Will Rock) than for any actual merit as a piece of theater, is presented here, in all its Brechtian atonal glory, with very few frills or elaborate staging - an appropriate choice both for Blitzstein's text as well as for the concert setting - and so each choice made by director Sam Gold is as strong a statement as the names of Blitzstein's characters: Larry Foreman, Mr. Mister, Joe Worker, Editor Daily.

So what does it mean, to clothe the cast in tuxedos and elegant evening gowns, to have the backdrop bear the quotation "In the rich man's house, the only place to spit is in his face," to cast the arresting officer as a squeaky-voiced boy, who reads his script off an iPad while the grown ups use the traditional black binders?

Raul Esparza and Peter Friedman as
Larry Foreman and Harry Druggist.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Well, honestly, it's a bit confusing. The boy-cop is a clear enough jab, the quotation is at least a forthright statement of intent, but the costuming - I'm not going to lie to you, it was a bit bewildering. If we go with the notion that this is a bare-bones production in terms of design - which it is - that the intention is just to let the text and the performers do the work - which they should - then it makes sense to costume the performers in a uniform manner. Why, though, favor the elegant side of uniform over a more neutral or utilitarian garb? The easy answer is: this is a concert performance at New York City Center Encores!, a very nice newly-renovated barn of a space, and we should honor the elegance of our setting.


The Cradle Will Rock was written to be subversive. Political, angry, and without the pretense of softening the statement in subtlety, Blitzstein's work is a march of protest. The presentation of it here, in these costumes, in this setting, was no doubt intending to show up the audience to its own foibles and hypocrisy - to spit in the rich man's face - demanding action from the (let's face it) primarily wealthy attendees in the orchestra to rock the cradle themselves. But it rings a bit false, a bit disingenuous (well, frankly. a lot disingenuous). Without the rawness that accompanied the original context, the careful control we see here instead, the control with which even the literally deconstructed finale of the stage crew packing up the set as the cast sings unamplified, feels safe, contained, and sanctioned by the large subscription-based theater housing it. If it's an unconscious choice, it's embarrassing; if a conscious one, an alarming statement of self-loathing intended to be held by all present. But this is not a revolution. It is an indoor tantrum, brief as a summer storm shaking the boughs holding the cradle.

[Note: this was not a full review of the production, but rather an examination of the troubling contradictions I was encountering from the audience. As to the performance itself, there isn't much to say about the staging otherwise, and the songs are songs you'll either like and appreciate or ... not. The cast performed very well together, handling the spoken rhythm text with aplomb and unity. Of particular note were Anika Noni Rose, doing double duty as the weary prostitute Moll and the ice-crystal tycoon's wife Mrs. Mister, and Danny Burstein, demonstrating a usually unseen quiet menace underlining his typical friendly demeanor.]

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