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On Stage: Politics hard on stage

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

In America, "political theater" is usually an oxymoron or a put-down. Sometimes an art form, theater is also tied to the commercial imperative, so politics is generally as problematic as religion -- subjects well-mannered people learn to avoid. When a play takes the plunge and turns political, it's swatted down as didactic or ideological -- as if ideology weren't present in everything we do. "Objective," "sensitive" and "universal," for example, are labels that express covert praise, concealing an ideological stance the writer may not even notice.

Yes, I'm talking about the war, but gingerly. Anyone trained in theater or rhetoric knows how politically charged even objectivity can be. And especially at times of political crisis, monovox tends to reign supreme. At least Michael Moore said what he meant on the Oscarcast, assuming that was a freedom central to this imperfect democracy we cherish.

But back to theater. I don't notice anything here as directly political as "The Madness of George Dubya," an adaptation to the present administration of "Dr. Strangelove," now playing in London. Such satire has only a marginal and occasional presence in America, in spite of our vaunted freedom of thought.

Still, 12 days ago The New York Times ran Bruce Weber's article on "Political Plays, Alive and Fiery," occasioned by English playwright David Edgar's "Continental Divide," a pair of plays critical of our two major political parties. Weber says such developments as the Supreme Court's elevation of George W. Bush to the presidency, the right turn in Washington, 9/11 and the war on Iraq have brought politics back on stage. He cites a half-dozen current examples, from Arthur Miller's "Resurrection Blues" and Tony Kushner's revised "Homebody/Kabul" to off-Broadway works by John Patrick Shanley and A.R. Gurney on America and the Middle East.

We do have politics as a subject locally in City Theatre's current "Fair Game" (through April 12), a smart if generally genteel new comedy by Karl Gajdusek about the presidential campaign of the first woman nominated by a major party. (Note the double-entendre in the title: Americans may expect a campaign to be a fair game, but it isn't; meanwhile, the candidate herself is fair game, indeed.)

This has occasioned a breakfast forum, "Madame President in 2008?" Apparently, the United States ranks 52nd in the world in the number of women in national legislatures, with Pennsylvania 48th among the states. The forum is 7:30-9 a.m. (serious time!) April 4 at City ($25; call 412-431-CITY). "Democracy without women is not democracy," says Cecilia Griffin Golden, co-chair of the White House Project Pittsburgh Collaborative, City's co-presenter.

And we'll wait for that harder-hitting political stuff to make it here.

'Ma Rainey' off and on

The Broadway revival of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is closing precipitously April 6. Apparently Whoopi Goldberg has a TV pilot to film. The star-crossed (literally) show got mixed reviews and never drew.

But in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre's debut production of "Ma Rainey" at the Penn Theatre has been extended, adding two performances, 8 p.m. tomorrow and Friday (call 412-441-2213).

I just had a plug from Sister Rita Yeasted of La Roche College. She and 15 students "really enjoyed the show, especially Jay Jones' Levee. While I love City Theatre and the Public, I think you can't beat the 'up close and personal' experience at the Penn Theatre. Also seeing Ken Bolden as 'The Dresser' on Thursday evening made a remarkable theatrical few days."

Offering further support is the man himself, August Wilson. He was here last weekend for Rob Penny's dramatic, moving funeral and took the chance to see and praise the local "Ma Rainey," reaffirming his support for Mark Southers' new company.

Bottom Line

Paid admissions at city's pro theaters for week ending March 23:

    Drawer Boy/Public (66%) ...... 3,185

    Fair Game/City (71%) ............ 1,327

    Birdie Blue/City (80%) .............. 362

    Price/Jewish Theatre (64%) ..... 307

Contact Chris Rawson crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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