The History Lesson
The last thing I ever expected was to be thrust into the position of being another Jean Chapelain. Chapelain, as was not discussed on a recent edition of Access Hollywood, played a leading role in the controversy over Le Cid, the popular tragedy that set mid-1600s Paris into an aesthetic tizzy. Playwright Pierre Corneille's choice to squeeze 11 years worth of historical events into a single day disagreed with Chapelain, the leader of the French Academy, whose purpose it was to ferret out deviations from a neoclassical ideal. In a spirited act of criticism, he wrote that while the play might be good history, it was bad theater, as it tried to fit too many events into a single day. I, in turn, have previously pooh-poohed Chapelain as a sorry old pedant who was too busy following a checklist of Aristotelian unities to recognize a good play. But I fear I poohed once too often, because this weekend I found myself dismissing both Sisters of Swing at the Great American History Theatre and the Pangea World Theater's production of Partitions for being burdened with too much history.
Sisters of Swing received great press before it opened. In part, this is probably because the show stars Twin Cities-based sisters Christina Baldwin Fletcher and Jennifer Baldwin Peden, and the local press can't seem to resist writing about these singing sisters. But the advanced press also undoubtedly owes to the fact that the script details the lives of the Andrews Sisters, who were Minnesota's contribution to WWII America's close-harmony sibling jazz groups. For younger readers, it might be helpful to think of the Andrews Sisters as a precursor to the Eighties pop group the Jets, who will no doubt also have a play devoted to them at some as yet unannounced future date. Just as we have witnessed in St. Paul's obsession with Charles Schultz and F. Scott Fitzgerald, we live in a state that has an ongoing, ravenous need to claim its celebrities.
But Sisters of Swing playwright Beth Gilleland found herself at sixes and sevens trying to capture the entire lives of sisters Patty, Maxine, and LaVerne, particularly in a play that includes 22 beautifully choreographed musical numbers. Even with the assistance of playwright Bob Beverage, the story has an unwieldy structure. The songs are interrupted by brief, criminally underwritten interstitial sequences in which the sisters sit down on their suitcases, look exhausted, and declare "New York!" or "Rome!" or wherever they happen to be. And then they launch into oddly fashioned monologues that summarize the past few years of their lives.
At the end of the play, this approach moves from peculiar to awful, as Gilleland and Beverage find themselves left with too many facts and not enough time to tell them. And so they offer up surreal scenes of uncertain mood, in which the most tragic moments of the sisters' lives are presented as knockabout comedy. For example, the play has the sisters seated on a sofa opposite Johnny Carson (played by a scene-chewing Ari Hoptman). One sister explains, in language so abbreviated that it might as well be semaphore, that the sisters' house burned down in a fire. The second sister likewise explains that the sisters are so deeply in debt that their hopes for a television show have collapsed. And the third sister, perhaps trying to top them, declares that she has cancer, at which moment the other two sisters glance at her in astonishment. Cue "wah-wah-wah" noise.
The real shame of this scene is that the third sister is played by Norah Long, a terrific actress whose assignment in Sisters of Swing seems to involve looking fussy and unhappy. And here we have her lone dramatic scene, and it is a bust.
At least there is Ari Hoptman, who, at times, seems to be in another play altogether--let's say Ole Olson and Chic Johnson's vaudeville-styled Hellzapoppin. Hoptman impersonates Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby, he sings, he dresses in a fruit basket hat and dances a terrible samba, and he is hilarious, as we might expect. In many ways, it is too bad that Hoptman isn't in another play.
Minneapolis playwright Meena Natarajan was faced with an even more daunting history in writing Partitions, a tale of India and Pakistan in the wake of Lord Mountbatten's 1947 partition of the two states. This division was so ill-conceived that the boundary might as well have been drawn in blood--a typical success story for the British in those years, who also set up the lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. Natarajan attempts to individualize this story by telling of two friends, a Sikh named Bishen (Amit Yadav) and a Muslim named Iqbal (Nikhil Lalwani) whose lives take very different paths when both are caught up in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Natarajan has a better dramatic sense than Gilleland: Her scenes, acted out on a stage that is itself partitioned by a gauzy fabric, flow smoothly and tell a solid, fascinating story. But, again, there is too much history to tell here, and too much of the play is spent in the telling of it. We're looking at 40 years, the migration of tens of millions of people, and the murder of additional millions, as well as the complex tale of Indira Gandhi's "Operation Bluestar," which led to her assassination. In order to convey all this, Partitions repeatedly grinds to a halt, so that a character can deliver a long monologue about some important historic detail.
Director Dipankar Mukherjee's staging includes projections of historic dates and documentary footage, which float, ghost-like on the gauzy partitions. But the metaphor here doesn't just apply to India and Pakistan but to the play itself, with these dates and events haunting the fabric of the drama.
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