by Stephen Cedars · August 13, 2014
There’s usually a den of traps for a writer tackling historical figures and real-life events. We’ve all seen too many bland bio-pics to be oblivious to the numerous potential pitfalls: hagiography, unjustified revisionism, provocation-for-its-own-sake, or worst of all, never measuring up to the history that’s so imbued with meaning because it’s, well, history.
Two shows in this year’s FringeNYC that have taken the plunge are worth noting, not only for their own merits as theatre, but also for the lessons they can offer those of us still interested in the risk.
Jeffrey Sweet’s Kunstler takes the safer, more-tread route towards this kind of story. Largely a one-man show about famed civil liberties defense attorney William Kunstler, the play eschews any complicated set to focus on the particulars of the lawyer’s journey. Kunstler’s career was marked by several high-profile cases – the Chicago 7 and Attica riots most notable – in the 60’s and 70’s, so his story serves not only as a fascinating history of American litigation, but also as a running commentary on the Culture Wars.
Given that the lion’s share of its 90 minute run time is devoted to Kunstler’s autobiography (as given to an auditorium of law students in 1995, decades after his most famous litigation), the show is remarkably compelling for several reasons. The first is that Sweet relies on a tried and true framing device. Throughout the play, an African-American law student, whose personal disapproval of Kunstler is clear from their opening pleasantries, sits on ‘stage’ and listens. It’s a loaded gun that adds a nice dramatic tension to what might otherwise become history lesson, offering the potential that Kunstler will be called out on a speech so self-congratulatory that it must be skewed somehow. That the final confrontation between Kunstler and the student is somewhat disappointing in light of that tension – it seems Sweet wasn’t quite ready to really tear into this lionized figure after all – doesn’t detract from how that device helps the show roll along.
Second is the writing, which is energetic, admirably tangential, and most of all, centered on a singular individual’s voice. What Sweet has going for him is that the story is already fascinating and rich. What he adds is a specificity to Kunstler’s interests, tics and self-awareness, so that his address feels rooted in a specific place at a specific time, not necessarily delivered towards a clear objective other than to reveal one side of a complicated man whose talent synthesized with the age to make him an American icon.
And finally, the show has a dynamo central performance from Broadway veteran (and AEA president!) Nick Wyman. Energetic, unceasingly charismatic, and most of all entirely natural and in the moment, Wyman really produces the sense that this is all being said for the first time. All in all, the team has capitalized on a great American story, and by focusing on one particular moment in the man’s life – a moment that believably offers occasion for him to revisit the rest of it – they have produced a compelling, nuanced biography of a figure worth remembering.
In a totally different vein, Japanese company Fuuun-Kabocha-No-Basha leans heavily into the epic with their Dancing Monk Ippen, a rock-pop musical about the 14th century monk who pioneered the art of Dancing Buddhism, which emphasizes movement and song as a means towards enlightenment. Like Kunstler, the play aims to explore a society through a remarkable man’s life. Unlike Kunstler, it employs theatrical largeness for a rollicking story set all over the place.
There’s a wonderful hodge-podge quality to the storytelling, which veers from melodrama to intense two-person scenes to ensemble battle scenes, all to explore a feudal war-torn world and the monk who refused to accept it. The only thing you won’t see is naturalism, which would likely sit strangely next to the songs, bright and orchestrated pop numbers that allow the singers occasion for nakedly expressive performances. It’s a non-stop ramble of lights and sound and immediacy, buttressed by the central, committed performance of Ikumi Sugamoto as Ippen, but dependent on an ensemble that feels larger than it even is because of the energy.
At least, I think all of this is true, because the entire show (with very minimal exception) is entirely in Japanese. The plot synopsis in the program is absolutely crucial (get there early to read it since it’s also victim to an imperfect translation and lack of focus), without which even the loose epic storytelling web could prove daunting. The subject matter is seemingly rich, with the potential to comment on the power of art and music, the cost of individual revolt even against a peaceful community like the Buddhists, and the necessity of duty towards one another. Unfortunately, for a non-Japanese speaker, only the spectacle resonates. And still, the level of performer commitment, the incessant energy, and the large-scale storytelling make that spectacle something worth noting. The ensemble choreography is often electric, and the sound design helps make battle scenes even without swords into quite a rollicking experience. How it functions as a biography is difficult to say, but for having communicated even as much as it did, it proves itself a gripping piece of theatre.