In September, we celebrate Labor Day and the contributions that workers across the country make to building our nation. This month’s Fourth Wall column looks at theater that examines the concept of labor; whether it’s one man’s mission to transform print media, the mental work involved in a daughter’s perpetual fictional narrative about her mother, or an Italian war bride’s labor of sacrifice in the face of overpowering passion.
New to the Stage
Ink, Round House Theatre
Showing Aug 30 – Sept. 24
What do Johannes Gutenberg, Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch have in common? They all understood the immense power of the printed word to transform society. While social media, AI and ChatGPT have forever changed the way we produce and consume the news, there was once a time when newspapers called the tune of the day. Ink tells the remarkable story of Australian-born Rupert Murdoch and his insatiable drive to “give the people what they want,” says Jason Loewith, Director of this Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Centre of a show that first debuted to critical acclaim on the stages of Broadway and the West End in 2017.
The play, written by James Graham, follows Murdoch’s rise to power in the UK media landscape of the late 1960s as he and journalist Larry Lamb transform a small tabloid called The Sun into a template for the media empire that Murdoch will eventually dominate. “This show really resonates today. As one of the characters says to Larry Lamb, ‘Once you create the appetite, you’ll never be able to stop feeding it,’” Loewith explains. “I find the play is very much about the state of the media industry right now. That’s what’s great about James Graham. He manages to find these small moments in recent history and explode them so that you’re able to see all the minute ethical decisions that people make along the way that lead to where we are today.”
Andrew Rhine plays Murdoch, and manages to bring nuance and depth to this popularly maligned capitalist icon. Through Rhine’s performance, we can perhaps more truly appreciate the grudge that Murdoch nurtured against the establishment of the day and against which he directed his arsenal of paper bullets. “The trick of the play is that you root really hard in the course of the first act for the team that Larry Lamb is building to execute Murdoch’s vision,” Loewith says. “It’s only in the second act that you get to see what happens to that populism.”
See this play for the scene at the end, where Lamb and Murdoch finally comprehend the monster they’ve created. “There is no ‘why’. You’ve killed ‘why’, Larry, just as you hoped to,” Murdoch exclaims. “’Why’ was how they controlled things, wasn’t it? Churches, schools, trade unions, newspapers, convincing everyone there’s an overarching idea! Well, ‘why’ is gone now. We’re free to ask ‘Who do you want to screw’, ‘What do you want to buy’, ‘Where do you wanna go’, ‘When do you wanna go there’. People love it.”
On Right Now
My Mama and the Full Scale Invasion
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Showing Sept. 11 – Oct. 8
Ukrainian playwright Sasha Denisova’s 82-year-old mother Olga has two lives: One involves quietly cooking away in the kitchen of her apartment in Kiev, refusing to leave as an act of passive resistance to Vladimir Putin’s violent occupation of her homeland. The other takes place entirely in the mind of her daughter and sees her launching jars of pickles at Shahed drones and calling meetings with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“I’ve been writing stories about my mother for many years,” Denisova explains, speaking about her new play being directed by Yury Urnov and co-produced by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and The Wilma Theater. “Ukrainian women have an incredible strength of character and sense of humor.
It’s a combination of resilience in the face of adversity, a certain phlegmatic approach to major disasters and attention to life’s details, like recipes for cottage cheese pie for Easter.” For 10 years, Denisova produced award-winning stage productions in Moscow, which was then a cultural hub for Ukrainian intellectuals. All that, of course, came to a grinding halt on February 9 last year when she made the difficult decision to flee the city just as Russian authorities shuttered all her productions permanently.
From Poland, Denisova would reach out to Olga, desperate to join her mother or whisk her away to safety. Olga, she says, wouldn’t budge. “When Mom refused to leave Ukraine and made the decision to fight back against Putin in her kitchen, she took on the character of a symbol. Mom, like all Ukrainians, like the rest of the country, did not give up. I decided to write a play from our correspondence and our relationship in general. This is a story of mother and daughter, understandable to everyone. But the war makes it tragic.”
So is Denisova’s play a form of therapeutic release? “A play can’t be therapy; you’re not cured as soon as you write it. Maybe you even get sicker.” she says. “When American actors play my mom and me, I get tears in my eyes. I’m sitting here in Washington DC, and there’s my mom, under the bombs. I write to her: ‘Mom, I’ll be there.’ She says ‘No way, it’s dangerous, your nervous system can’t take it!’ But she’ll withstand it. At 82 years old! Mom tells me to enjoy life, that she’ll wait for victory with optimism. ‘I survived two wars, I will survive Putin.’”
Watch this play to see President Joe Biden being served borscht and Ukrainian cutlets by Olga in her kitchen, while she strategizes with him on the best way to end the war.
Catch before Closing
The Bridges of Madison County
Signature Theatre, Aug. 8 – Sept. 17
It’s 1960s rural Iowa. Robert Kincaid, a photographer for National Geographic, shows up on the doorstep of Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride who left Napoli at the end of WW2 with Bud, an American GI. Kincaid, played with convincingly good old fashioned Southern boy charm by Mark Evans, changes the course of Francesca’s life when he asks for directions to a local bridge, and this musical theater production directed by Ethan Heard with a score by Jason Robert Brown tells their ensuing tale.
Based on the best-selling book by Robert James Waller, the show originally opened to critical acclaim on Broadway in 2013. Brown and Marsha Norman’s lyrical interpretation does a stellar job of conveying the breathlessness of Kincaid and Johnson’s emotional rollercoaster. Erin Davie’s Francesca is a triumph, capturing the hopefulness, isolation and resolve that many women fleeing Europe with American soldiers at the end of the war must have experienced on US soil.
It’s through Kincaid that Johnson first becomes aware of the vast flatness of her life, symbolized by the featureless Iowan horizon that stretches in every direction. It’s not that she’s unhappy with Bud, but Kincaid’s unique perspective on the world— represented by his camera lens— opens her eyes to new possibilities: A life of vivid color and texture that she had silenced forever when she left the shores of home. A special mention must be made of the ingenious mobile set design by Lee Savage, which really does convey the fastidiousness of Johnson’s home, while also doubling as one of Madison County’s famous covered bridges.
Evans and Davie’s duet in Act 1, Wondering, really shows off the vocal prowess of these two actors. Soaring voices accompanied by the delight of a live band heightens the emotional experience.