Flags and Pygmalion
Flags and Pygmalion
World War I poet Wilfred Owen wrote, "The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori" -- it is noble and proper to die for one's country. Playwright Jane Martin has taken that old lie and hung it out to flap and stream like dirty washing in a high wind in Mixed Blood Theatre's wrenching premiere of her/his play, Flags.
The Guthrie Theater commissioned the mysterious playwright Martin, a pseudonym, to write Flags and gave it to Mixed Blood because this year's Guthrie season is already set, and Flags is a play of fierce topicality.
Flags looks at the emotional reality of a working class family whose son is part of a steady flow of young Americans, coming home from Iraq in body bags.
Eddie Desmopoulis drives a garbage truck. He's a thorny man, but his wife, Em, steadies him. One son is serving in Iraq as a tank commander. His tour of duty has been extended twice. Eddie scorns Frankie, their other son. "How's the hip, Pop?" Frankie inquires. "You're a fuckhead," his father replies. When two immaculately uniformed officers come to the house bearing a folded flag, Em and Eddie know what it means. Eddie smolders with angry grief. On learning how Carter died, his rage erupts. Whether by accident or intent, he flies the American flag upside down, a sign of distress or disrespect. Disrespect is assumed, and the family goes from being honored as local war heroes to being excoriated as unpatriotic enemies of the state. Eddie's rigid determination not to change the flag has consequences that parallel the administration's impetuous decision to go war in Iraq.
Director Steve Pearson guides the husband and wife team of TV actors Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry as Eddie and Em through Flags' 90-minutes of hot pain with lean assurance.
On opening night, cues in the early moments of the first scene still felt awkward, but Mulkey and Landry quickly found their stride and the sense of intimacy and distance in any long marriage. Both are excellent in their roles. Landry's Em is all good sense and warmth. She is the rock upon which Eddie needs to stand to hold himself together. Mulkey's well-lived-in but ruggedly good-looking face works well for Eddie. He's a rough-edged man; he's in love with his wife, harsh, judgmental and yet, as his friend Benny says, he's "four-square," a Vietnam vet patriot. Mulkey held me spellbound in Eddie's torment.
As Frankie, the vulnerable son who needs his father's approval to step forward in his life, André Samples convinces in sensitive playing. Joe Minjares plays Benny, the Desmopoulis' levelheaded neighbor and friend, with humor and warmth. He loves Em and sees her struggle.
Warren C. Bowles, Michael Egan, Gavin Lawrence and Amy McDonald serve as a Greek chorus and play multiple minor roles. The chorus provides reportorial comment in cadenced speech about the action. "Fear the compass of the body politic," the chorus warns. The recitation of the chorus sharpens the drama of the real action. As the officer who comes to report Carter's death, Egan captures the man's discomfort, the professionalism of his sympathy and the hollowness of his noble-sounding words. McDonald plays a ruthless reporter, Lawrence a candidate for office who wants to exploit Eddie's pain for his own benefit, and Bowles is affecting as an empathetic military priest.
Kate Sutton-Johnson combines a minimalist set of desert camouflage-colored sliding panels, with video projections and real-time live video to excellent effect. A bowling alley is evoked by Reid Rejsa's sound design, a cemetery by bird song and dappled light in Paul Epton's light design.
Martin intends for Flags to do what powerful theater has always done: question society and accepted values. It's a shoulder-fired rocket, fired at the decision to go to war in Iraq. Regardless of where your political sympathies lie, this is fine dramatic theater.
Flags October 6 - 31, 2004. Wednesdays- Fridays 8:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees Sundays - 3:00 p.m. $10 - $25. Mixed Blood Theater, 1501, South Fourth Street, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-338-6131. www.mixedblood.com.
Do go to see the Guthrie Theater's Pygmalion; it charms, entertains and awakens thought about our own increasingly stratified society. Do not go thinking of the rags-to-riches romance of My Fair Lady, the Frederick Loewe/Alan Jay Lerner musical, derived from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. In Shaw's play, the opinionated characters are more complex, the verbal dexterity and wit more heavenly, and the moral issues of class and of carelessly changing a person's life are clearly at the fore.
Best of all, among an accomplished cast, Bianca Amato sparkles as Eliza Doolittle, the "draggletailed guttersnipe" whom the phonetics professor, Henry Higgins, pulls from the street on the whim of a bet with fellow linguist, Colonel Pickering. Higgins claims that he can take this cockney flower-seller, who is as common as London dirt, and pass her off in society as a duchess within six months. In Eliza he has clever, if turbulent, material to mold. A contentious, often hilarious, battle of wills ensues, as she learns and grows, and Higgins remains fixed in his tunnel-vision maleness and focus on phonetics.
Director Casey Stangl directed Amato in her Guthrie debut in an acclaimed Top Girls at the Guthrie Lab two seasons ago and, here again, director and actor appear to work in unison to produce a magnetic performance.
British accents fall naturally to the tongue of South African-trained Amato. "Ai, bai, cai," gutter-fresh Eliza says, as she recites her alphabet to Higgins. Something like, "Yeiaow," rips out of her, when Higgins orders his housekeeper to strip and bathe Eliza and to burn her clothes. To become a lady, Eliza must learn not just a class-defining accent, but manners, deportment and conversation. In a hilarious scene in the act three, Higgins takes Eliza out for a trial run at his mother's salon. She is beautiful and her accent is perfect, but her stiff manner and perfectly pronounced ribald conversation stuns her surprised audience. Stangl can't resist overplaying this superb scene at its close, and Eliza stalks out (after delivering a zinger) in a manner bordering on farce. And that's a pity.
Amato conveys Eliza's growing awareness that she's an experiment to Higgins, a commodity with which he plays, in subtle facial expression and body language. Hers is a first-class performance.
Daniel Gerrol plays Higgins as Shaw wrote the character; he is an arrogant intellectual, witty and wordy, a man absorbed with his narrow subject, who lacks sensibility to other people's feelings. In Gerrol's hands Higgins is an engaging but unmannerly aristocrat.
Among the strong supporting cast, Barbara Bryne as housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and Brian Reddy as Alfred Doolittle, both shine. Raye Birk gives a nice reading of the gentlemanly Pickering, Patricia Connely returns to the Guthrie in a strong performance as Mrs. Higgins, and Bob Davis has palpable fun as pompous Nepommuck.
Anita Stewart's five-or-so pillared sets and Linda Fisher's elegant costumes give a strong sense of Edwardian England. In the opening scene, it pours with rain, and an unfortunate leak continued to drip into the ballroom scene. I was intrigued by a consistent but unobvious visual theme of caryatids, weight-bearing pillars, shaped as draped Greek female figures.
Shaw was a feminist before the term was invented. He saw how women, held down in traditional roles, bore the weight of society on their shoulders, and he believed that, given opportunity, women were the equal of men and should have the vote. This Pygmalion's splendid Eliza proves his point.
Pygmalion October 2 - November 7, 2004. Thursdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. The Guthrie Theater, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Tickets: $14 - $49. 612-377-2224. Toll Free: 877-44 STAGE. www.guthrietheater.org.