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Incendiary

I’ve already written two blog posts about it, so I really have no desire to revisit yet again the controversy over the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, even though it’s been even more of a news item over the past week. (Protesting Shakespeare? Seriously?) And at this point, anything anybody might say or write would be irrelevant, since by the time you read this post, Gentle Reader, the production will have played its final performance – the regularly scheduled closing date having been Sunday, June 18. The one thing I do want to point out is that, regardless of whatever one might think about the production, it’s clear that the actors performing in it are having the time of their goddam lives. Partly it’s because they’re skilled performers getting to play on what may be the single greatest stage in this city – I’m talking about the physical stage, with actual lakes and castles for a backdrop, a giant amphitheater hugging a space that can still be astonishingly intimate. But mostly, it’s their barely-contained glee at getting away with it. Here they are, quite literally at the front lines of a major cultural clash, their work directly influencing the national dialogue, mattering in a way few actors ever get to experience. For these past few weeks, they have truly been living the dream.

I envy them. I’ve never had that experience. Well, that’s not entirely true – some years back, I was in a show where we almost had that experience. Were supposed to have that experience. It’s just that things turned out…a little bit different than we were expecting.

In the immediate days following September 11th, after processing their grief, the heads of theater companies throughout America met in their various offices and tried to figure out how best to move forward in this changed nation. Many looked at the figure of President Bush – once a wastrel youth, now charged with leading a nation at war – and saw parallels with Shakespeare’s Prince Hal; many productions of Henry IV and Henry V were mounted in those days. Most companies looked for plays which might reassert our values of community, of compassion; Wilder’s Our Town was an especially popular choice.

And then there was the Classical Theatre of Harlem, where I was working extensively at the time. On the morning of September 12th, its directors looked at each other and exclaimed, practically as one, that the play they needed to do was Stanislaw Witkiewicz’ The Crazy Locomotive.

For that small handful of you not familiar with avant-garde Polish drama: The Crazy Locomotive tells the story of a pair of criminals who hijack a train. Disgusted with the decadent world around them, and in thrall to their own mad ideology, the protagonists of this story decide to try and bring about the heroic world of the future by deliberately crashing their vehicle of mass transporation. (This play was written in 1923, by the way.) Yes, in the immediate aftermath of an event most of us viewed as shockingly, unimaginably evil, our directors wanted to remind people that such evil wasn’t unimaginable. That not only had we civilized Europeans entertained such ideas less than a century ago, but a good fraction of us had viewed those ideas as noble (the play parodies the ideas of the Italian Futurists, in case you’re curious). That until we reckoned with this aspect of ourselves, we couldn’t begin to address the world we found ourselves in.

Intense stuff, right? Provocative, confrontational, potentially offensive. It’s what we did back then, back at CTH. I was down. I was ready. Ready to cause trouble, ready to be part of a controversy, ready for what I did to matter.

We staged the play in the spring of 2003. It’s a highly stylized piece, so at that first performance, the audience was just staring throughout its opening minutes, not sure of what was going on. Nevertheless, when I made my entrance as the leader of a group of passengers trying to take back the train (I told you this was intense!) I felt a palpable sense of unease in the room. And as the plot neared its climax – as it became clear that the action was indeed leading to this staged terrorist act – I heard a commotion in the front of the house. It’s happening, I thought. We’ve offended people enough to walk out. We’ve started a riot. Dear god we’re really doing it this is really happening –

My chain of thought ended with a strange whoosh, followed by a flash of white. The sound of a fire extinguisher.

You see, a few minutes earlier, one of the leading actors had taken off his engineer’s disguise (it’s how he reveals he’s secretly a criminal mastermind, you see) and tossed it into “the boiler.” On our highly stylized set, the engine’s boiler was represented by a trapdoor on a raised platform, ringed by opaque plastic, in which was contained lighting instruments and smoke machines to create the proper effect of smouldering coal and billowing smoke. When the actor had tossed the costume into “the boiler,” it inadvertently landed on a 1000-watt klieg light, and proceeded to catch fire. The set unit, designed to hold in the fake smoke, did a successful job holding in the actual smoke and fire – which only caused it to intensify. That whoosh I’d heard was our director putting out the fire seconds before it would have broken through and started to engulf the theater.

We stood in place for a minute or so, not knowing what was going on, bouncing in place – remember, we were passengers on a runaway train. The fire went out, the audience applauded their rescue, and still we bounced. Finally, despite every maxim that “the show must go on,” it was deemed impossible for us to continue that night. The action was halted just before the climax of the play – and the abrupt shift in tone from bizarre comedy to unspeakable tragedy that was the entire point of the production.

As a result, when the reviews of The Crazy Locomotive came out, nobody even noticed the parallels to September 11th attacks. We weren't seen as a production responding to current events.  We weren’t a production that dared to confront the audience with unpleasant truths about the allure of evil. We weren’t offensive or provocative.

We were the crazy sons of bitches who burned down their own theater on opening night.

Nevertheless, the production had a successful little run. And the reputation of Classical Theater of Harlem as a troupe of fearless risk-takers was indeed cemented, and that reputation has served all of us well who worked there as performers. As we’ve moved on to other projects over the course of these wild and eventful subsequent years, our colleagues and employers know they can count on us to pursue our art to intense and difficult places, under all kinds of circumstances.

After all, any decent theater artist needs to be willing to play with fire.

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