VOLUME 3, ISSUE 335 | August 26 - September 1, 2004


The Mint Theatre
311 W. 43rd St., 5th fl.
Tue.-Thu. 7 p.m.; Fri, Sat. 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun. 2 p.m.
Through Aug. 29
$45 212 315-0231

“Cornered And Alone”
Triad Theatre, 158 W. 72nd St.
Tue., Thu. 9 p.m.
Through Sep. 23
$25, 212 352 3101

Agitprop and Diversion

Political theater works best when it checks our parochial urge to be proved right


Brian Dykstra’s “Cornered and Alone” allows the actor to rant about everything from gun control to the nightly news without excempting himself from social criticism in a one-man show that runs until the end of September.

As a political instrument, theater is highly inefficient. And in an age of political theater available 24/7 from so-called “news” sources, some might argue that traditional theatrical events may be approaching irrelevancy.

Fortunately, that is never going to stop artists from invoking politics in theater. However limited it may be, I will take passionate theater that makes me think and feel any day over pallid and mindless entertainments, though of course those are not our only choices.

The challenges for contemporary political theater, especially in traditional venues, are first attracting an audience at all and second compelling that audience to action. In today’s marketplace, we have so many choices of media, we naturally gravitate toward sources that cater to our biases. Theater and, yes, news have lost their power to be intrusive, forcing us to think differently because in our profoundly egoistic culture, we can always find someone who will give us the comforting message that we are right. In fact, there may no longer be any “mass media” per se.

Smugness and comfort, pervasive as they are today, are anathema to political theater.

Mainstream media is complicit in bringing us theater under the guise of news because it’s profitable, and no producer—save Max Bialystock—puts on a show to lose money. Their job is to sell ads, and they know that polarized drama sells. It is a lot easier and more entertaining to be strident than incisive. Emotion sells; rational thought takes more time than a three-minute segment allows.

Ironically, despite the stridency and pandering to emotion, the human connection is lost in much of the media today—though the illusion is the opposite. We are not supposed to see the coffins brought home from Iraq, for instance, because death is one of the ways war becomes real. The media that is supposed to bring us closer to the war, through such tactics as “embedding” reporters, is actually being used to distance us—and the producers of these nightly shows are buying into it because advertisers are buying time. The result encourages a kind of emotional and intellectual isolationism on an individual level that permits any one of us to put our fingers in our ears and sing “la la la la” whenever something we don’t want to hear is said.

So it’s no wonder Brian Dykstra is damn pissed. His one-man show “Cornered and Alone,” is an extended rant, punctuated with slam poetry about the myriad things that he sees as corroding our society. The questions he raises—such as “what happened to follow-up questions” from reporters—are generally trenchant and on target. His description of Hollywood’s manipulations juxtaposed against the show business of Washington is subtle yet powerful. He derides the manipulation of religions to justify promoting guns for everyone and abortion for no one, and he even turns his criticism on himself saying that the reason to do a one-man show is because he wants to be a star.

Dykstra is weakest in his poetry, which though an interesting device, distances us from him. The show opens with a set piece “The Evil Queen,” which is far too abstract and “cute” for what follows. In his poetry, he abandons his otherwise precise use of language for the facility of rhyme, which makes the poetry precious when it should be raw. Still, Dykstra is preaching to the choir. You will not see delegates to the Republican convention in the house. You will not see anyone who isn’t fundamentally in agreement with Dykstra’s politics lining up to buy tickets, and in that respect this show buys into the polarization of our times.

Far more compelling in terms of harnessing the power of theater is the magnificent production of “Echoes of the War” by J. M. Barrie, which is in an extended run at the Mint Theater Company. This stunningly simple production of two short plays bypasses rhetoric and goes directly for the heart. For all their Anglo-Saxon decorum, these two plays plum the depths of emotion and the realities of war—namely that there will be irrevocable loss and that when the war ends, life will never be the same. Barrie, literally, brings this home and puts it on a human scale—the very thing that the Bush administration is trying desperately to avoid in terms of public perceptions.

With sensitive direction by Eleanor Reissa and brilliantly nuanced performances by the entire company, especially Richard Easton, Frances Sternhagen and Gareth Saxe, these plays and this production have more power to move and transform than any amount of strident ranting. In fact, it makes today’s political discourse seem small and selfish.

No matter what we’re told, the fact of the matter is every war changes us. The one we’re engaged in now is no different. The world will not go back to the way it was, and like children who know they are being lied to, no amount of being told “It’s all right” is going to convince us of that. Barrie wrote what was real and that moves us deeply.

Dykstra, quite rightly, rages at the lies we are being told. Neither George Bush nor John Kerry has a concrete, comprehensible plan for dealing with the current reality of war and so, with the willing participation of everyone who profits from this unresolved reality, they’re happy to divert us. Just don’t think you’re getting reality.

As P.G. Wodehouse always said, “When a show’s in trouble, bring on the girls.” And we’ve got girls everywhere we turn these days.

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