A Month of Theater
By George Takei
NEW YORK CITY – This has been a month of travel and tri-city theater going. I
flew from home in Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for my commission meetings,
then on to Manhattan for the weekend. And wherever I am, theater is something I
search out. It is my refreshment, my muse and my passion.
Before I left Los Angeles, I had
taken in two wonderful productions, the Odyssey Theater Company’s interpretation
of Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" in contemporary dress and an imaginative new play
based on the myths of Ovid, "Metamorphosis," by Mary Zimmerman at the Mark
Taper Forum. Even before I began my trip to the East, I was transported back
and forth through time by both productions with their ever-compelling tales
that still resonate with such contemporary relevance. To quote Mary Zimmerman, "Myths
are public dreams, dreams are private myths."
Then on to Washington, D.C., for the
meetings that consumed most of my time there. On the last night, I joined
friends for dinner and theater. My friend Marc Okrand sits on the board of the
Washington Shakespeare Company and the play we were to see that night was its interpretation
-- in collaboration with the African Continuum Theater -- of Shakespeare’s "As You
Like It." And I liked it! It was delightful. It was very today. Have you ever heard
iambic pentameter spoken to hip-hop rhythm? Can you see the forest of Arden in New
York’s Central Park? And can you imagine the frolickers in that park as Blacks,
Whites, Asians and Latinos? I saw it, I heard it, and I was thoroughly enchanted
by it. Old Will can be so now! Shakespeare was vibrantly multi-ethnic in his infinite variety.
The theatrical offerings of New
York can be overwhelming in volume as well as in diversity. One has to be selective
-- and lucky. Tickets for new Broadway shows can be enormously difficult to
get. I was very lucky. I was able to secure great tickets to three dazzling new
productions. The first night was Julie Taymor’s stylish "The Green Bird." The
next was a matinee of Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s rock version of "Aida." And
the final evening was the highly praised import from London, the Royal National
Theater’s production of "Copenhagen."
Julie Taymor is the boldly
inventive director who created the big Disney smash of a few seasons back, "Lion
King." She has the gift of taking the conventions of ancient theater such as
masks, marionettes and shadow puppets and magically transforming them into the
language of today’s theater as she did with the Disney hit. With "The Green
Bird," she used the style of the old Italian, Comdia del Arte with its cast of
stock characters in masks and comically exaggerated costumes to create an
entertaining evening of Broadway theater. As much fun as the style was,
however, the story was as rambling as a tale told by an over-enthused Italian raconteur.
The tragic love story of Aida, the
Nubian princess, is one that lends itself to extravagant production excesses. Some
opera productions have even had real elephants and camels parading on stage.
Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s "Aida" is also richly produced but, unlike other Broadway
musicals, there are no chandeliers crashing, helicopters landing or other show-stoppingly
spectacular effects. The effects used are imaginative and organic to the plot
and the characters. The satire on the obsession some women have with high fashion
is dead on and the fashion effects are hilariously, fabulously spectacular. The
effect of looking down on a huge oval pool with swimmers languorously moving about
in the water is pure stage magic. And the music is not only beautiful but has deep
resonances beyond the love story. The lovely song "Elaborate Lives" could be taken
as a cautionary commentary on our present affluent society. The bookending of
the play with contemporary scenes in the Egyptian gallery of some museum seem
to underscore the story’s relevance to our times. At the core is a deeply moving
tragic love story sung and acted by three brilliant performers. Heather Headley
as Aida, Adam Pascal as the hero, Radames, and Sherie Rene Scott as the
Princess Amneris are all shining stars.
Perhaps the most impressive play
was the London import from the National Theater, "Copenhagen." It is based on an
actual event but moves beyond that to explore issues of morality, nationality,
personal responsibility and the mysteries of the human psyche. The central
event is a meeting between Niels Bohr, the brilliant Nobel Prize winning physicist
who helped develop the atomic bomb and his former student, Werner Heisenberg, also
a Nobel Prize winning physicist and a Nazi. That they met in 1941 in Copenhagen
during the war is known fact. Why Heisenberg wanted to see his mentor and what
they discussed is unknown. Michael Frayn, the playwright, moves us back and
forth in time to speculate from different vantage points on the motives, the
discussions and the reactions of the brilliant but conflicted scientists at
that meeting. "Copenhagen" was theater at its finest.
American theater at the beginning
of this century is vibrantly alive. It is inventive and pertinent. It has
substance as well as style. It is finding new theater languages to interpreting
classic theatrical forms. It is thoughtful and provocative. And it is fun.
What’s next on my busy theater
calendar? I’m looking forward to East West Players’ production of Stephen
Sondheim’s "Follies" at the David Henry Hwang Theater in downtown Los Angeles. This
musical, directed by Tim Dang, runs from May 17 to June 11. If you’re in the
L.A. area, why not catch the show?