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Remembering the Federal Theater Project

Plus the Toronto production of the latest from playwright Brad Fraser

This week I’ve been revisiting Tim Robbins’ 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock, while preparing to introduce a screening at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center for the start of the fourth Bi-Annual Cross-Border Post Keynesian Conference at Buffalo State College. The film is a fictionalized account of a remarkable moment in the American theater, but it builds its story using actual events and historical figures.

Produced by the Federal Theater Project in 1937 under the supervision of Orson Welles and John Houseman, Cradle Will Rock was the first musical by Marc Blitzstein, best remembered today for his English language adaptation of Three Penny Opera. In addition to celebrating the brilliance of Federal Theater director Hallie Flanagan, the film serves to remind us of the remarkable accomplishments of the FTP itself. In its four years of existence, using less than one percent of the WPA budget, the FTP employed thousands of artists and stage technicians, and performed for fully a quarter of the United States population.

Charged to deploy a national theater as swiftly as possible, Flanagan pioneered simultaneous performances, involving multiple productions of a single play, opening in cities across the country, all on the same night. For example, a stage adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ anti-fascist play, It Can’t Happen Here, opened simultaneously at 21 theaters in 17 states.

For a relatively small government investment, the return was colossal, and the impact of the FTP on the future of the performing arts in America was permanent. How ironic in 2009, in the face of the current recession, there were politicians who resisted the idea that stimulus money should be spent on the arts! That was the fate of the FTP too, as right-wing politicians feared that the program was inundated with “reds” and pulled the plug in 1939.

The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later

The Federal Theatre Project, and particularly its “Living Newspaper” docudramas, inspired Moisés Kaufman to take his Tectonic Theater Project to Laramie, Wyoming, one month after the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. On October 6 of that year, Shepard had been beaten, tied to a fence outside of Laramie, and left to die. His torture and murder became a watershed moment in American culture.

The members of Tectonic Theater Project conducted interviews with the people of Laramie, and from these interviews they wrote The Laramie Project, a play that was later made into a film for HBO. The piece has been seen by more than 30 million people around the country, including a successful production at Buffalo United Artists in Buffalo.

Now, 11 years later, Kaufman and his company have written a sequel, based on a return trip to Laramie last year, which they are billing as “an epilogue.” The members of Tectonic Theater were interested to find out what had happened to Laramie over the last 10 years. Had the events of 1998 had a lasting impact on that community? In what ways was history being rewritten to efface the truth of what happened in Laramie?

Inspired by the FTP’s simultaneous productions, after Tectonic company introduces the piece at Lincoln Center, the work will be performed simultaneously at over 100 theaters in all 50 states and in 14 other countries.

The new play includes interviews with Matthew Shepard’s mother Judy Shepard and one of his murderers Aaron McKinney, who is serving two consecutive life sentences. The writers also conducted many followup interviews with Laramie residents who were represented in the original piece, including Romaine Patterson, Reggie Fluty, Jedediah Shultz, Father Roger Schmidt, Jonas Slonaker, and Beth Loffreda.

Here in Buffalo, BUA will be among the participating theaters for the Monday, October 12 performance at 8pm in the BUA Theatre, 119 Chippewa Street. Directed by Chris Kelly, the Buffalo company will include Kerrykate Abel, Arlene Clement, Caitlin Coleman, Kate Elliott, Jimmy Janowski, Adam Rath, Eric Rawski, and Doug Weyand. Call 886-9239 for information.

True Love Lies

Brad Fraser

Canadian writer Brad Fraser’s latest play, True Love Lies, opened at Toronto’s Factory Theatre last week. The opening of a new Fraser play is a major theatrical event. His work has been seminal, if un-credited for its influence on American and British theater and television. Fraser is known for his powerful episodic representations of urban life in contemporary Canada, beginning with his groundbreaking 1989 play, Love and Human Remains (formerly titled Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love), which depicted overlapping friendships in 1980s Edmonton, set against the backdrop of a serial killer stalking the city.

Happily, True Love Lies is Fraser-esque with a vengeance, complete with characters coming to terms with sexualities in flux, pasts that haunt the present, and graphic representations of sex, drug use, and violence—all set within the paradoxically comfortable yet insecure confines of close friendships and the nuclear family. In the Fraser reality, we are always navigating the razor’s edge between the comical and the dangerous, where our laughter one minute might be punished the next, or where our spontaneous wincing might make us feel foolish as the story unfolds.

In True Love Lies, Madison, a woman in her early 20s, still living at home and not keen to finish university, is looking for a job. She applies at a posh new restaurant and feels a natural rapport with the owner, a 50-year-old gay man named David McMillan. David seems ready to hire Madison when suddenly he realizes why she seems so familiar. He knows her father. He rejects her, promptly and without further explanation.

Indignant, Madison returns home and confronts her parents. They are evasive. Like other Fraser characters, Madison proves to have an uncanny intuitive sense, and when she casually speculates that the restaurateur is her father’s former gay lover, she immediately realizes that she has unwittingly hit upon the truth, uncovering a powerful family secret.

Everyone’s life will be turned upside down.

Fraser first introduced the David McMillan character in Love and Human Remains. The play was named one of the Best plays of 1992 by TIME magazine, and the character would reappear in Poor Super Man (which was also recognized by TIME in 1994). The blurring of boundaries in McMillan’s life both defines and distresses for him, and his past constantly invades and undermines whatever security he finds—as, for example, when Madison turns out to be the daughter of Kane, the busboy who was infatuated with David in Human Remains.

Thanks to BUA’s devotion to Fraser, their audience has seen most of his work for the stage, including a “Fraser Festival.” They have performed Love and Human Remains (twice), Poor Super Man, The Ugly Man, and Martin Yesterday. BUA has announced True Love Lies for later this season.

Fraser’s has been an idiosyncratic career. He has a contentious relationship to the drama critics of Toronto and is famous for publishing diatribes in which he openly derides them for incompetence and even stupidity, making for a tense relationship with his hometown press, complicated by a provincial Canadian tendency to withhold praise or even approval from local playwrights—even when that playwright is as significant as Brad Fraser.

Name 10 important Canadian playwrights…okay, five…

I thought so.

A few years ago, it seemed that the theater might lose Fraser entirely when he headed to Hollywood as one of the writers for Queer as Folk on Showtime—an ironic career move, as the original British Queer as Folk was unabashedly inspired by British productions of Fraser’s plays. Human Remains won an Evening Standard Award back in 1992, and he has routinely skipped New York in favor of the UK.

Interestingly, the Toronto reviews of True Love Lies focus almost exclusively on acting and production values, and seem unable to assess the quality of the script apart from those elements. This is singularly inadequate. Fraser himself has directed the piece—always a risky enterprise for a playwright—and he does send his cast hurling through the dialogue at breakneck pace. He does emphasize the comedy over the complexity of the script. He does overpopulate the abstract setting with cumbersome prop dishes and such, not trusting his own impulse toward abstraction—there are too many playing areas, and complete meals are set for dinners that will only take a few seconds. Still, all this seems irrelevant when the power, insight, and originality of the writing should be obvious to anyone versed in dramaturgy.

One particular moment, which culminates with (spoiler alert!) David and Madison having sex, is staged like farce, with David doing comic double-takes. While the scene plays false in this production, the action of the script actually moves us toward this reversal, elegantly and efficiently. The gradual seduction begins at the moment when the characters first see each other, several scenes earlier, and David perceives Madison’s resemblance to Kane. Fraser the writer artfully establishes Madison’s uncanny intuition, and we understand that by the time she puts the moves on David, she already knows for certain that he will accept her advances.

Other moments hauntingly evoke moments from earlier Fraser scripts, as when Kane’s wife, Carolyn, obsessively cleans during a period of emotional crisis, as another character had done in Human Remains. Through mundane repetitions, Fraser’s characters strive to conjure stability and normality from a human condition that cannot sustain either. Fraser is well known for his ability to tackle a cultural or theatrical cliché, subverting its meaning and intention, as he does with incessant family meals and social niceties.

Even Fraser’s willfully Victorian conclusion to the play, in which Madison manipulates reconciliation between David and Kane, must be seen as provisional and temporary in the Fraser universe. Here, stable resolutions are not sustainable and the “normal” is a fantasy—just one more in a litany of urban legends.

The production is populated with very strong actors, and they have mastered the rapid-fire style of delivery that characterizes a Fraser play. That the emotional push and pull between characters is not consistent can be forgiven in view of the fact that this is the script’s first Canadian outing. David is played by David W. Keeley, and Madison is played by Susanna Fournier. Andrew Craig gives a remarkably focused performance as Madison’s troubled brother, Royce. Kane and Carolyn are played by Ashley Wright and Julie Stewart. Collectively, they do conjure a marvelously engaging evening, filled with humor, perplexing conundrums, and original insights. And on top of it all, as always, Fraser is a masterful entertainer.

The Factory Theatre is located at 125 Bathurst Street at Adelaide in Toronto. True Love Lies plays through November 1. Call 416-504-9971 for information.

View all theater listings in this week's On The Boards.