Friday, February 6, 2009

Original Zinn

Men are from Mars, and women from Venus, but this cast is from heaven: the actors of Daughter of Venus.

Art and politics have a bedeviled relationship: art has only formal meaning without a political frame, and yet a too-obvious political context reduces its freedom and power. Howard Zinn's Daughter of Venus (in its last weekend at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, in a co-production with Suffolk University), like much self-aware political art, tries to straddle this conundrum by mediating between various modes; it's a political tract configured as a soap opera but costumed as a dream play, an artistic amalgam which is sometimes awkward, and never entirely focused. Still, I agree with the tract, and the soap opera ain't bad, and the dream play is at times haunting. The direction and acting are also quite strong - indeed, there should be eventual IRNE and Norton nominations for cast member Alex Pollock. In short, there are worse ways to get your lefty fix.

Howard Zinn, of course (at left) is the retired BU professor (and author of the much-loved People's History of the United States) who committed his personal and professional life to "the struggle" (and those quotes are not meant ironically). So it's no surprise that Daughter of Venus should have a strong political slant; nor is it a shock that in formal terms it should be cast in roughly the semi-poetic terms pioneered by Arthur Miller and other Jewish lefty types. The political is the personal in this style, and so Zinn's debate is cast as a family drama, between Paolo, a biophysicist tempted to join a government weapons program, and his daughter Aramintha, a crunchy activist just back from the Third World who's determined to stop the sins of her father. Floating through this generational mix as a kind of free itinerant spirit is mother Lucy, who's always onstage, but actually in treatment at McLean (or some such place) after a breakdown and suicide attempt - apparently because she was so disappointed the nuclear freeze didn't take, given son Jamie suffered mental damage in utero during Dad's last foray into the arms race (the couple spent time at a nuclear test site).

If this dramaturgy sounds a bit forced - well, it is; but the surprise is that Zinn has a natural ear for dialogue. His scenes flow smoothly, and sometimes even poetically. But he can't quite bring himself to complicate his themes: Aramintha starts out on the left but in the right, of course, and she stays that way throughout, even though Dad's loss of that extra income from selling his soul might mean no treatment for Mom and less care for Jamie. But such a heart-wrenching trade-off would, of course, take the bloom off a certain romantic self-righteousness in the script; better to keep beating up Dad for his past mistakes and hubris. At the same time, however, such a conflict between the personal and the political might have truly liberated the play from its once-timely debate and given it some longer-term resonance. As it is, Zinn wrote the play in 1985, near the height of the nuclear freeze moment (pasting in some plot twists loosely derived from his own entanglement with the Pentagon Papers a decade before), but has since revised it to work in the War on Terror and other Bush administration malfeasances. The resulting political patchwork feels a bit amorphously generalized - although I suppose it's all good - which is perhaps why director Wesley Savick and Designer Jon Savage have stylized their production into a kind of dreamspace.

Throughout this remembrance of political things past the actors nevertheless move with commitment and energy. As the Italian Paolo, Ken Cheeseman's accent seems to wander the Mediterranean, but his hangdog smarts and sense of sweet, shaggy comedy keep the character sympathetic, while Angie Jepson, as a daughter seemingly more from Mars than Venus, keeps the callow-spitfire thang crackling along nicely. Meanwhile Paula Langton is for once cast just right as the ghostly Lucy, and does indeed haunt the production (as do her mournful piano solos). But the real news is Alex Pollock's tenderly-rendered Jamie; true, these kinds of "mentally-challenged" roles can degenerate into middlebrow actor catnip, but Pollock does an impressively sensitive and restrained job in the part. Even if the character isn't much more than a political device.

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