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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Theatre Pro Rata gives flawed play,
Emma, a spirited airing

EmmaHistorian Howard Zinn's Emma is part biography of Emma Goldman, the 19th/20th century anarchist, and part polemic. Whole chunks of speeches delivered from behind a podium weight his thorough script and yet, in spite of Emma's dramatic shortcomings, gutsy Theatre Pro Rata stages the play with zip and invests the characters with a fire that engaged me much of the time.

The play opens on a scene in a corset factory sweat shop. Four young Russian immigrant women sew 12 hours a day on the sixth floor of a fire-trap building, in which the fire escape is kept permanently locked. Young Emma, played with steely resolve by Erin Appel, threatens a spontaneous strike if their bully overseer doesn't unlock the door. The door is unlocked, and Emma is on her way to becoming an anarchist leader. She joins a cell of young revolutionaries in New York and becomes a charismatic speaker who travels the country teaching unionizing rights to workers, promoting freedom for women, birth control and free love, and teaching resistance to the power of capitalist government, exploitative industrialists and patriotism that leads to war.

Some of Emma's words feel eerily topical, as she rails against a government that uses fear to manipulate the will of the people to enter into war, and as our present-day working class grows poorer and huge wealth accumulates in the hands of a few.

Director Carin Bratlie uses Zach Morgan's bare-bones set and her cast of eleven, who play multiple roles with resourcefulness. In Stephanie Drinkard's lowered lighting, the cast shifts props between frequent scene changes to give a sense of changed location. And Bratlie has cast members sit among the audience to clap, cheer and holler approval during Emma and Johann Most's frequent speeches, a device that lends energy to the didactic quicksands of speechifying.

Appel succeeds in tapping Emma's fierce wellspring of conviction, so that her words persuade, whether she's speaking from a podium or plotting with friends, and she finds Emma's implacable determination, her idealism and her vulnerability to sexual charm.

The play gains momentum from Emma's relationships. In New York, she meets and loves fellow anarchist organizer Alexander "Sasha" Berkman who, in a dramatic scene, attempts to assassinate the ruthless industrialist Henry Clay Frick. She sleeps openly and idealistically (yes!) with their friend Fedya and with her mentor Johann Most; she has a love relationship with a woman, and falls heels-over-head in love with dilettante, Dr. Ben Reitman.

Dylan Fresco convinces as absolutist Sasha and nicely captures a sense of growing intimacy between himself and Emma as they spar with their intellects at first meeting. In an understated role, Joseph Papke plays Fedya, their artist friend, but it is as a dialect coach that Papke excels. He trained fellow actors in plausible Glaswegan accents for Pro Rata's 2002 Trainspotting, and the accents in Emma are recognizably Russian. These immigrants are Russian Jews who sometimes break into haunting song.

Zach Morgan plays Emma's philandering lover, Dr. Reitman, but he lacks the flair to carry the role. Amber Rose Brown's classy period attire sits awkwardly on him, and he handles his silver-headed cane like a prop, rather than as an elegant accessory to cut a dash with the ladies.

Kevin Carnahan speaks in German-accented English as anarchist Most and he plays Frick, who sets armed Pinkertons on the strikers at his Pittsburgh steel mill. Derek Miller gives us a brief glimpse of a young J. Edgar Hoover as he climbs the rungs of the FBI.

Lively Sheila René Franklin, Tammy Shanley, Jerome R. Marzullo, Elizabeth Sibley and Jonathan Peterson round out the able cast. Peterson also plays period piano music, particularly Scott Joplin, on stage.

Emma is a fascinating slice of little-known history that feels timely in our present political climate. Pro Rata gives it a brave outing, but at two hours and 45 minutes, it is a few speeches too long.

Emma runs August 20 - September 5, 2004, Thursdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. and Sundays 2:00 p.m. $10 - $15. Theater Pro Rata, Loading Dock Theater, Renaissance Box Building, Sibley Street, St. Paul. Tickets: 612-874 9321. For more information, visit www.theatreprorata.com.


Photo: Bob Carlson



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Elizabeth Weir



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