Summertime, and It’s War and More War in the Park

The New York Times

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June 30, 2006

Summertime, and It’s War and More War in the Park

War is the word plastered in yellow across the advertisements of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park plays: war in Moisés Kaufman’s militaristic interpretation of “Macbeth,” which opened on Wednesday night, and war in the production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” which begins performances on Aug. 8.

Those will not be the only war plays marching across the boards of the Delacorte Theater. In a departure from the standard one- or two-play menu, a staged reading of “Stuff Happens,” David Hare’s partly imagined chronicle of the discussions in the Bush administration leading up to the Iraq war, will be presented at the Delacorte on Sept. 5. The tickets will be free, handed out that day at the Delacorte and at the Public’s headquarters on Lafayette Street in the East Village.

Oskar Eustis, who took over as the Public’s artistic director last year, said in an interview that “Stuff Happens,” while a critically successful show that ran for 103 performances at the Public and closed on June 25, was not likely to move to a commercial theater, in part because a 16-member cast is expensive. The free reading at the Delacorte, perhaps New York’s most populist theater space, was a way to commemorate the play’s success, Mr. Eustis said, by giving it “free to the city.”

The idea also dovetailed with the already established theme of the summer. “These three plays are all fantastic theatrical ways of responding to the current” — Mr. Eustis searched for the word — “dilemma.” After another hesitation, he reconsidered: “Oh, heck, let’s call it the imperialist venture in Iraq.”

No, these plays are not simply about war, they are against war. Though they are complex and ambiguous in many ways, they present a unified picture of war as horrific and often pointless, imposed upon people by impulsive leadership.

“There’s no question that my view of this war is affecting the programming choice,” Mr. Eustis said.

” ‘Stuff Happens,’ ” as Ben Brantley wrote in his review in The New York Times, is “a collective work of imagination that attempts to grasp how and why an unnecessary and unwinnable war was allowed to happen.”

The staged reading in September, which will bring back most of the cast, will be the first time a contemporary play has been put on at the Delacorte since the mid-1970’s. The choice of this play, coming after two serious meditations on war rather than Shakespeare in the Park’s usual comedy-tragedy balance, was not a coincidence.

“The fundamental political statement that we’re making is that the theater is supposed to be responding to the great political and social issues of our time,” Mr. Eustis said. “It’s our job to throw ourselves into the teeth of these dilemmas.”

More than a year ago Mr. Eustis decided he wanted to stage “Mother Courage,” Brecht’s often comic but ultimately tragic portrait of a family trying to survive during the Thirty Years’ War.

Tony Kushner, who has written a new translation of the play — which George C. Wolfe, the Public’s former artistic director and producer, will direct and Meryl Streep will star in — said he did not change the language to bring it up to date, nor did he intend to tease out the more relevant passages to draw attention to modern parallels. But they are there, he said.

“There are some lines in the play that are remarkably apropos to our situation,” Mr. Kushner said. “You can’t not think of things like the Bush administration.”

Mr. Kushner, who says “Mother Courage” is far more complex than a mere antiwar polemic, is about as political as they come in the theater. In 2004 portions of “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” an unfinished play by Mr. Kushner in which Laura Bush reads passages from “The Brothers Karamazov” to dead Iraqi children, were given staged readings at benefits for the liberal group

Mr. Eustis said he began looking for a comedy to offset the serious overtones of “Mother Courage,” but decided instead to stage “Macbeth,” a play that is not usually considered a war play but begins and ends with war. Thus the theme of the summer was set.

While “Mother Courage” is about civilians and soldiers affected by war, Mr. Kaufman, who created and directed “The Laramie Project” in 2000, said his interpretation of “Macbeth” was an examination of leadership in wartime. Mr. Eustis writes in the program about the character of Macbeth, played by Liev Schreiber: “He is completely riven by doubts and moral uncertainty, but he never lets those uncertainties slow down his actions.”

Both Mr. Eustis and Mr. Kaufman compared Macbeth’s public display of conviction to the public image of George W. Bush, saying that there is a need by the public to know if the president experiences the sort of remorse and inner conflict about his decisions that Macbeth demonstrates in private.

“Our leaders can be so blinded by their passions, whether they be ambition or greed or religious ideas or whatever, that there is this disconnect between the deeds they do and the people they are leading,” Mr. Kaufman said. “When I think of us going to war, and that the reasons for going to war and staying at war seem so distant from what the American people really need, there is a strong connection.”

It’s unlikely that the Public’s audience will be alienated. Joseph Papp, who founded the Public — as the New York Shakespeare Festival — in 1954, was vociferous about his antiestablishment politics; the production that he chose in 1967 to christen the Public’s move into its current home, the former Astor Library, was “Hair,” a celebration of the anti-Vietnam war counterculture and a choice that Mr. Eustis described as Mr. Papp’s “shot across the bow.”

Mr. Eustis said he had heard no complaints from the Public’s board about the summer programming, and Mara Manus, the theater’s executive director, said she did not expect that the political tone in the works themselves would have an unfavorable effect on fund-raising.

“I think that our supporters and our audience who come to the Public have an expectation of sorts,” she said. (Experience bears this out: at a performance of “Stuff Happens” a few weeks ago the audience guffawed and at times jeered when the actor playing Mr. Bush delivered his lines.)

That Mr. Eustis would push political theater is almost expected. As resident director at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco in the 1980’s, he presented Emily Mann’s “Execution of Justice,” about the 1979 trial of Dan White for killing the San Francisco mayor George Moscone and the supervisor Harvey Milk. He also commissioned Mr. Kushner’s “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” (one of those themes being the corroding effects of Reaganomics).

With “Angels,” Mr. Eustis said, he saw how a play could considerably alter the political landscape, changing the ways that gay people saw themselves in American culture. “To feel a change that way,” he said, “wow, that’s addictive.”

Mr. Kushner, who has been friends with Mr. Eustis for years, is not shy about politics either.

“Something that Oskar and I share is a real belief that complicated political theater, complicated progressive political theater can actually be popular,” he said.

Mr. Kushner was asked about adding the word “progressive.” What’s wrong with political theater from all perspectives?

“Well, I don’t like relativism,” he said. There’s nothing wrong with staging right-leaning theater in principle, he said, but he added: “The Public has always been a theater, since Joe Papp first invented it, that offers political and socially engaged theater. Ninety-nine percent of anything that’s watchable and can be described as political theater is theater of the left.”



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