Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: Freedom Fighters Past and Present

By Ed Malin

Barbara Kahn’s new play Ghost Light Now & Then is playing at Theater for the New City.  This is a time-fluid story which takes place in the Greenwich Village Theater, once located at Seventh Avenue next to Sheridan Square. Kahn and Robert Gonzales Jr. direct a solid ensemble, many of whom have worked on Kahn’s previous historical dramas.  The result is very informative, even for long-time New Yorkers.  In our time, where the desire for change is so strong, it’s worth checking out this play about radical Villagers.  The “Ghost Light” of the title is the light left on for safety when the theater is dark.  Or are there ghosts in every theater?
Mandy, an actress (the energetic Danielle Aziza) and Becky, a writer (the fiery  Micha Lazare) are two young women in love.  It is the 21st Century, and Mandy and Becky are looking for each other in the dark.  In and out of this darkness comes an Organ Grinder (the self-possessed Rachel Drayke), who croons songs of longing from the Jazz Age. An unexplained disaster or upheaval has just happened.  After finding each other in the debris, Mandy and Becky stumble into a boutique full of bohemian anarchists, located, as you might expect, in Greenwich Village.  Madame Jamesina (the defiant Steph Van Vlack) and Ann (the extremely creative Amanda Boekelheide) are flaunting bourgeois tyranny.  The ladies smoke (presumably Virginia Slims), are so in favor of free love that divorcing a loving husband makes sense, and are sure they will get the vote very soon (placing them sometime just before 1920).  Mandy and Becky, who take being feminist for granted and are, in fact, married to each other, admire the anarchists while wondering how they can get back to their own time.  After a short walk, Mandy and Becky meet Jim (the earnest Brandon Sngdnc Mellette), who is studying for the Bar exam despite the prejudice all around him.    He advises Mandy and Becky to leave the Colored neighborhood, as they don’t belong.  Lost and very much craving their own time and place, Mandy and Becky encounter Jacob Slovak (the melancholy Robert Gonzales Jr.), a Jew from Poland who has come to New York. They also meet Myra (Amanda Boekelheide), whose father, Yekel (Robert Gonzales Jr.) is trying to control her; the conversation here is in Yiddish, a language Mandy finds she is able to speak, much to Becky’s surprise.    By now, Mandy and Becky see that so many persecuted groups came to Greenwich Village in search of a better life.  They also speak with Billing (Brandon Sngdnc Mellette), who has journeyed to Ireland to get the local inhabitants, including Mary Ellen (Steph Van Vlack) to acknowledge and build a statute of a supposed native hero, General John Regan.
So much drama, such diverse characters, and yet, Mandy and Becky muse, they keep meeting the same people in different scenes.  Just as their frustration is mounting and Mandy and Becky question their commitment to each other, they learn that they have indeed been talking to the troupe of actors who performed at the Greenwich Village Theater (which occupied the building where they were standing at the start of the show) between 1917 and 1930.  The situations Mandy and Becky have experienced all come from plays done at that theater, such as Hobohemia by Sinclair Lewis, God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, All God’s Chillun Got Wings by Eugene O’Neill, Jacob Slovak by Mercedes de Acosta, and General John Regan by George A. Birmingham.  The theater in question also produced the famous Greenwich Village Follies and much more.   If you’re like me and have not yet heard of Mercedes de Acosta, she was a playwright who dared to stay out of the closet in the 1910s through 60s.  Her lovers included Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, Alla Nazimova, Eva Le Gallienne, and maybe Eleonora Duse, and…..  In 1923, Sholem Asch’s Yiddish drama moved from the Village to Broadway, where it was greeted by protests, partly by Jews who didn’t want Gentiles to find anything else objectionable about their religion. Ahead of the premiere of Paula Vogel’s new play Indecent, which is based on it, New Yiddish Rep is currently producing Asch’s play in New York.  In any case, Mandy and Becky admire the many groups which strove for freedom during the last century and are inspired to stay together and pursue their dreams.
Seeing Barbara Kahn’s plays can be quite a revelation.  Whether or not you have a personal connection, as Kahn does, to any of the groups mentioned in the play, I think you’ll find it comforting to know that our city has had a considerable, long-lived movement for equality.  Nowadays, with Anti-Semitism on the rise, endemic racism exposed and LGBTQ gains contested, the artists and freedom fighters of the past are powerful exemplars.   Living in a sanctuary city full of immigrants is a very meaningful thing indeed.   Mark Marcante’s sets and lighting invoke the many paths of life found in the Greenwich Village Theater’s plays.  Everett Clark’s costumes bring to life bohemians, anarchists and shysters.  The tireless cast unearth the many identities found in our neighborhood this last century, and they play these characters with great sincerity.

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