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"Can You Hear Their Voices?"
Peculiar Works Project at Pop-Up Space
2 Great Jones Street, New York, NY
June 3-27, Thurs.-Sun. @ 7:00, $18
Tickets: (212)352-3101 or www.theatermaania.com/new-york/can-you-hear-their voices_16897/
Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky
(L to R) Carrie McCrossen, Ken Glickfeld, Christopher Hurt, Derek Jamison, and Catherine Porter. Photo by Jim Baldassare.
"Not since the Great Depression" has practically become a brand for today's economic climate. As if.
Peculiar Works Project's heartfelt and appealing production of the 1931 "Can You Hear Their Voices?" revives a then up-to-the-minute portrait of the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich against a backdrop of both economic and natural disaster. Things were different in the days before entities like FEMA, food stamps, disability insurance, social security, or FDIC were even gleams in their progenitors' eyes.
The play is based on a short story by Whittaker Chambers written before he turned anti-Communist. It depicts an event in a drought stricken Arkansas town where farmers raided a Red Cross supply station for basic foodstuffs weeks into what was clearly a famine.
Patricia Drozda. Photo by Jim Baldassare.
Playwrights Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford devised a work of short scenes, overt activist rhetoric, and statistical information projected on screens. Their project was to make clear why desperate people did desperate things. Because these people did what they did at gunpoint (although without physical harm to anyone) for the collective good in the face of government neglect, it was easy at the time to brand them Communists, although their interest was less the Soviet Union than it was having enough food to keep their infants alive and their pre-teens at home.
In this play, the baby dies and the little boys are sent away because the farm can't yield anything but dust. As the kids head off, with instructions to hitchhike to the nearest large city and find the Communist cell, their father intones the putatively subversive message that every man should have the right to work, eat, and think for himself. (For the record, two of the most radical activist and thinkers in the play are young women.) The play concludes with the boys' departure and their mother asking, as they disappear down the road, "can you hear their voices?"
(L to R) Tonya Canada and Ken Glickfeld. Photo by Jim Baldassare.
The production really asks if we in the audience can hear them. All of them. And in this play that includes the super rich, who plan lavish parties, worry about the right designer clothes, insist on expensive educational pedigrees for their offspring, and assume they are the right cohort to run the country. Directors Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell use the same actors to play both the rich and the poor groups, throwing in cross-gender and cross-racial casting for good in-the-same-boat measure.
Of course the congressman and the Arkansas (or Mississippi, Tennessee, or Kentucky) farmer were not in the same boat in 1931; the premise underlying bailouts and stimulus packages in our time is that now we are, although clearly some are in suite-sized cabins and others are in steerage. That's one of the things the program notes and publicity invite audiences to contemplate.
Ken Glickfeld. Photo by Jim Baldassare.
PWP specializes in site-specific work, and while the storefront Pop-Up Space has nothing historic or geographic to generate particular meaning (it's billed as a storefront), its small size, several levels, and purpose-built stage tucked in a corner create intimacy and visual variety. Racks of costumes are positioned behind the two small banks of audience seats, and actors quickly morph into brand new characters in a matter of seconds. A staircase leading to a small balcony is used for drunken tryists at the swank Act II soiree.
A trio of live musicians perform Seth Bedford's original score, which creates discord, tension, sadness, and moments of hilarity. The music is potent in part because it supports a representation of 1931 without attempting to replicate any specific music of that year. Archival film footage and projections of the same words used in the play's first ever production (at Vassar College, where Flanagan taught and Clifford had been a student) both bring back 1931 and set its zeitgeist in conversation with today's.
Catherine Porter and Christopher Hurt. Photo by Jim Baldassare.
So what, exactly, might we hear in that conversation? Then, as now, theatre artists often came from the ranks of the privileged and such artists offer(ed) their activism for little pay because they can. The underclass and the filthy rich remain subjects with dramatic draw, even if few of us want to identify with the former or will achieve the status of the latter. The specter of Communism or socialism remains a red herring (yeah, yeah, unavoidable pun), even as collective—or at least government enacted—solutions to gross inequity and natural disasters are the only ones that seem to be able to do large scale work.
And there's one other thing. This production is a reminder that clever staging and theatre with aural, spatial, and performance ingenuity aren't the exclusive province of the big budget. Hearing these voices projected but not amplified is a good thing in a small package.
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