Maybe the last six or seven years of economic woes have had a negative impact on our ability to laugh at financial scheming and the foibles of those responsible for those woes. Or maybe (I can only hope) the increasing split between the haves and have-nots has forced us to take the financial shenanigans of the moneyed class as a serious threat to our well-being. But seeing Encores’ production of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” and the Potomac Theatre Project’s (PTP) production of Caryl Churchill’s “Serious Money” back-to-back has certainly suggested that our current financial landscape is anything but funny.
Ms. Churchill’s 1987 harpooning of Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of Britain’s money-markets played well at The Public Theater in 1987 but failed in a Broadway run a few months later. That may say more about the audience for uptown versus downtown theatre than the quality of Ms. Churchill’s satire. “Serious Money” has all of the attributes that make Churchill’s writing so stimulating to serious theatre-goers. Her play starts with a brief scene from “The Volunteers” by the little known 17th century English playwright, Thomas Shadwell, that reminds us that financial manipulation against the general good is nothing new. What follows is a complicated mixture of murder mystery, financial hijinks, and satirical portraits of economic exploiters told at break-neck speed by characters that speak in rhymed couplets. Add to that a raucous musical number at the end of each act with traders and money-managers singing the joys of “making money, making money… do the fucking business, making money.”
But almost thirty years later, cozily revived downtown again, the brilliance of Ms. Churchill’s writing and theatrical manipulation in “Serious Money” seems less humorous and more prophetic. Her play not only foreshadowed what is now considered “a mere recession” in the early 1990s, but also the worldwide crash of international financial systems in 2007-8 from which western economies are still trying to recover. So it’s not surprising that a 2013 downtown audience comes to Ms. Churchill’s play trying to understand what is going on, rather than sitting back and laughing at the almost psychotic greed and amorality of the moneyed class. The exaggerated maneuverings of the 1% are all too real (even in rhymed verse) and Ms. Churchill’s play does not seem to be dated so much as it appears to be unnecessarily obvious. I found myself trying very hard to follow the specific ways these people were spinning their financial spider webs rather than laughing at the portrayal of their manic machinations, as I am sure the 1980s audiences must have.
The Potomac Theatre Project’s production captures the madcap pace, the unbridled greed, and the amorality of the financial world. The production is bare-bones but very faithful to the text and its intent. Cheryl Faraone’s staging is crisp and clear; the madcap musical numbers that end both acts are appropriately over-the-top. Tara Giordano, David Barlow, Marylou Baines, and Alex Draper are particularly good in lead roles. Potomac’s productions are designed to give its sponsoring college’s students a transition into professional theatre, and these currently enrolled and recent grads of Middlebury College fill out the large cast of 17 effectively. PTP is also dedicated to producing socially-relevant theatre and “Serious Money” certainly addresses that goal; it just becomes a very different play than it was almost 30 years ago.
The Encores production of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” suffered from an opposite set of circumstances. While Blitzstein’s depression-era quasi-operatic satire is a flawed work, it remains a cogent cry for upsetting the economic imbalance between the working middle- and the moneyed-classes. The piece has a legendary place in American theatrical history. It was originally produced by John Houseman and directed by Orson Welles as part of the Federal Theatre Project. When the Federal Works Progress Administration learned of the show’s passionate advocacy of unionism and its “power-to-the-people” themes, the production was closed down shortly before its Broadway opening. Houseman and Welles were determined to present Blitzstein’s piece. But ironically, the fact that the actors were unionized prevented them from appearing in an unsanctioned production. So Messrs. Houseman and Welles rented another theatre, lead the audience to the new venue, and then, with Blitzstein at a piano on the stage, the actors sang their roles from the audience, avoiding their union’s restriction from appearing onstage.
Although there have been several off-Broadway revivals of the work, there’s a certain irony in Encores selecting “Cradle” as the first show in their new “Off-Center” series since the original production was very much a legendary on-Broadway show. However, the much more disturbing aspect of this inaugural production was the way it was produced. Encores has a well-deserved reputation for presenting forgotten or infrequently revived musicals in staged readings that bring out the inherent strength of the show: its book, music, lyrics, and its intended theatrical experience. Over time, these “readings” have evolved into much more elaborate productions with choreography, limited but evocative sets and costumes, and first-class performers accompanied by an orchestra the size of the original pit orchestra, performing the original orchestrations.
The initial announcements for “Off-Center” clearly stated that the productions of these shows would return to Encores’ roots – less elaborate productions with book-in-hand, tuxedo-clad performers and limited staging, revealing the inherent strengths of the music and the book– “in the Encores! tradition.” Some of this “scale back” was designed to allow City Center to charge less for many of the seats – only $25 for side orchestra (although the center seats remain $110). But those of us who cherish the Encores tradition also looked forward to using our imagination to fill in the details and appreciate these near-lost musicals as they were initially intended by their creators.
My hopes for this production of “Cradle” were fortified by the announcement of its very strong cast including Danny Burstein, Raul Esparza, and Judy Kuhn among others. I was even excited that one of NYC’s hottest directors, Sam Gold, was directing, even though I have found his work somewhat uneven. While Mr. Gold’s selection of plays has not always been to my liking, he is a director that usually demonstrates a faithfulness to the author’s intent.
So I was surprised – make that outraged – by the complete disregard for the work and its intent in this presentation. Rather than trusting Blitzstein’s disjointed book structure and broad-based agitprop stylization, Mr. Gold chose to cast women in men’s roles, have one role played in drag, and a young boy playing several adult parts. None of this casting against type brought any added understanding or meaning to the piece and frequently was a major distraction from the book and lyrics. Blitzstein’s characters are archetypes, meant to be representative of America’s economic class system. Mr. Mister is owner of the steel factory; Larry Foreman is the union organizer. For some strange reason, Mr. Gold seemed to view these more like stock vaudeville types rather than personifications of the conflicting forces in American culture and economics. This unusual treatment of Blitzstein’s text left the audience confused as to how they were supposed to respond – is this a dated comedy in need of creative direction to entertain a modern audience or a pointed satire of American values and class systems that has contemporary relevance?
Mr. Gold’s treatment of this classic work was, for me, a complete betrayal of the Encores mission. There is certainly room for rethinking historically important works and presenting them in non-traditional productions. But Encores is designed to allow an audience to appreciate the piece in its original form and context. The emphasis should be on the work itself, not on someone’s vision of how that work might be reconceptualized. Do not misread this. I value and frequently celebrate new ways of looking at older works. But I also value the preservation of shows as their creators intended them. Encores has traditionally been the premiere forum for such preservations – a place to rediscover the inherent strength in the work itself.
Watching and listening to “The Cradle Will Rock,” I was struck by how relevant and contemporary the book, music and lyrics remain. If only Mr. Gold had brought the same level of faithfulness to his interpretation of Blitzstein’s “Cradle” that Ms. Faraone brought to Caryl Churchill’s “Serious Money,” the former might have succeeded where the latter was less than successful.