Last week we observed that biography, at its root, involves actively making sense of a subject's existence; searching for coherence and organizing principles in a lifetime of disparate events and then articulating them. This week, two biographical plays—Carson Kreitzer's 2003 drama The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the world premiere of Jody McAuliffe's My Lovely Suicides—remind us that when the past remains too problematic, some biographers aren't willing to content themselves with just reporting it.
On second thought, that motive seems implicit as well in the structure, narrative and even the title of Rewind, the biography of former prison inmate Regina Walters that we reviewed last week. In each of these productions, the playwrights, directors and actors are seen to probe, interrogate and even critique their subjects.
Throughout the Little Green Pig production of My Lovely Suicides you can all but hear McAuliffe, director Dana Marks and actors Jay O'Berski, Flynt Burton, Gregor McElvogue and Tom Marriott impatiently asking Heinrich von Kleist, a German Romantic writer from the early 19th century, why he had to be such a proto-Goth and drama queen (or proto-queen, according to current thoughts on the history of homosexuality). The group yields much of their remaining time in turn to the grilling of his lifelong nemesis, Goethe.
Though scholars note the existential threads in Kleist's stories and plays are now recognized as presaging the work of Ibsen and Kafka, success eluded him in his lifetime—in some part due to his works' critical reception by Goethe. This production repeats the critique that, after establishing his own career, the author of Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther abused his position as arbiter of taste by backing mediocre artists who couldn't threaten his own achievements—and snubbing the unconventional work of experimentalists like young Kleist.
Marks' direction continues the disjunctive, seemingly anarchic approach Little Green Pig has found useful in previous takes on Chekhov and others. After a wordless opening stage movement montage that draws more attention to its own manners and ostentation than the story to come, Marks confidently sweeps a series of fluid scenes briskly in and out of our view. The acoustics of the handsome new Strawbridge studio space, located on West Geer Street just across from Manbites Dog Theater, added literal resonance to the proceedings from O'Berski's first words on a darkened stage.
But does the final result here, of the script as well as the production, constitute a life too reduced to something of a killing joke? McAuliffe and company appear to offer Kleist a prescription, in the figure of McElvogue's doctor at an asylum for the insane. "The more you are alive," he notes, "the more vulnerable you are to death." The argument does not prevail, as it did not in the author's life.
But Kleist's increasingly ardent gestures, urging prospective lovers of both genders to join him in a suicide pact, seem depicted here as laughable overindulgences. The fact that his character's integrity sometimes seems compromised doesn't help matters. Kleist is depicted gravely burning a manuscript and then, moments later, just as gravely extinguishing the flame—to laughs from the audience—but the historical figure did burn a number of his works, without the second thoughts burlesqued here.
Using so much humor to strategically distance us from the darkness in Kleist's life ultimately seems a miscalculation and an unintended disservice. Just how useful is the observation that Kleist was just too emo to live? What other conclusions does this particular production leave us with?
The interrogator in Kreitzer's The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer reaches back to the beginnings of Jewish mythology. Her name is Lilith. Depending on who's telling the tale, she's the first critic—and possibly the first activist—since (some say) she left Eden, before the appearance of Eve, in protest against sexual inequality.
Here the playwright makes her a constant inquisitor and, at times, the only sympathetic companion to the scientist called the father of the atomic bomb. Still, considerable tensions are at play in her role as very special prosecutor. At one point, this relentless first woman (played by Debra Gillingham), sickened by "living on the smoke" of the Holocaust, admits, "I thought this one will be interesting.... He will take the rage of the Jews and make it explode." Later, she turns on Oppenheimer's project with nihilistic laughter. Her sardonic response to Hiroshima: "I watched it burn, and I said 'Do it again, make another one, bigger, do it again.'"
The focus in Gillingham's work is never less than taut, and director Emily Tilson Ranii is self-assured in her staging of this poetic, speculative biography. Though her ensemble captures the grittiness of atomic politics, equally gritty is designer Vicki Davis' set. Objects that are dragged across her rice-covered floor cast symbolic streams of fallout in their wake throughout the work.
Actor James Anderson distinguishes himself in crisp readings of a foreign scientist and Edward Teller. Morissa Nagel crafts a wicked edge to Kitty, Oppenheimer's wife. Brian Linden's notable work as Oppenheimer evokes a charismatic scientist whose admittedly poetic soul does not confer wisdom about the devil's bargains and ultimate consequences of the Manhattan Project until very late.
So clearly focused a production constitutes a stringent cross-examination of the ethics of the Bomb. At the end, Oppenheimer isn't the only one on the hot seat. So are we.