Marc Blitzstein’s play The Cradle Will Rock had one of the most famous premieres in theater history. The Federal Theatre Project commissioned, then dumped, the piece, which the powers that be deemed too far left by even New Deal standards. On opening night, June 16, 1937, an injunction prevented the cast from performing and the government allegedly locked the theater’s doors. Director Orson Welles found an empty space, the Venice Theatre, 20 blocks north, and the cast and audience paraded to the new site, protesting all the way. Instead of an orchestra, Blitzstein played his songs on a piano. So as not to violate their union contracts and perform on a stage, the cast sat in the audience and sang amid the most humble setting imaginable.
Everyone believed the feds locked the doors. But remember: along with being a theater artist, Orson Welles was a master promoter (a year later he went on CBS radio and convinced Americans that Martians were invading). In the classic agent provocateur tradition, Welles could easily have fastened the padlocks himself, cried “censorship,” found the empty theater (on amazingly short notice), and garnered undreamed of press for the show.
Though performed rarely, productions of Cradle reproduce the original conditions: bare stage, piano, with the piano player shouting out scene numbers, à la Bertolt Brecht. The proletarian look was as radical for Broadway at the time as were Cradle’s political underpinnings.
Called “a play with music,” Cradle’s an exposé of corruption in high places. It begins with poor Moll, streetwalking so she won’t starve. In the scenes that follow, Blitzstein has various citizens prostitute themselves, to robber baron-like Mr. Mister, in order to thrive: Reverend Salvation waffles on the virtues of peace; Editor Daily slants the news; even artists cop to the lure of loot. Into this lion’s den of iniquity charges stern-jawed, union-organizing Larry Foreman. He rocks the “cradle of liberty” and performs a secular harrowing of hell.
Stone Soup Theatre follows the Venice staging. When not performing, the cast sits on a raised area, as if part of the audience. Rocky DeHaro’s costumes add a touch: the villains (evil Mr. Mister and the Steeltown Liberty Committee) dress in black and white; while the oppressed menchen — Foreman, Moll, and poor Harry Druggist, who loses his son in a nonunion bombing — are in living color.
The production’s both fun and frustrating. Vocally it’s a mix of able singers (Christopher T. Miller’s uncaped crusader, Larry Foreman, vitalizes the room; Byran Curtiss White’s Rev. Salvation ladles understated ironies) and performers for whom the rapid-fire score is either beyond their range or their abilities. All tend to blast through the lyrics and garble the words.
In a way, playing the various villains goes against an actor’s training. Most of them are types, not dimensional beings, and should be played as generic sellouts. Brett Daniels, who looks a lot like Orson Welles, has a strong presence and obvious talent but underplays Mr. Mister, who could be more obviously evil.
The whole production feels toned down, in fact. It needs a major dose of agitprop: angry, screwball (cartoony if necessary), eager to irritate. These folks finally have the chance — maybe their first and last — to tell their story. They’ll do anything to shake up the status quo. Anything.
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The printer who erred with the one- and two-cent Mauritius stamps in 1847 — inked “post office” instead of “post paid” — would be astonished at the hubbub he caused 150 years later. So is passive Jackie, who brings her ancestral stamp collection to an appraiser, expecting to pick up a few shekels for the lot. Those two “tiny pieces of paper” turn out to be the “crown jewel of philately” worth, in Theresa Rebeck’s talky thriller Mauritius, lying, cheating, and conniving for.
Along with her half-sister Mary, whose greed grows in every scene, Jackie encounters a trio straight out of American Buffalo but with a twist. They’re competent: the stamp appraiser knows his stuff, the young wannabe’s streetwise, and the moneyman’s loaded with ill-gotten gains and an ill temper to match. Each is a practiced tactician, but so, it turns out, is Jackie.
Jessica John heads a game Cygnet Theatre cast as nerdy Jackie, the lamb that John expertly metamorphoses into a lion. John DeCarlo’s compulsive-talking Dennis, Sandy Campbell’s upscale, backstabbing Mary, and Jack Missett’s sleazy Philip contribute. Skin-headed Manny Fernandes (who’s getting scary good in these roles) ladles essentially comic scenes with a palpable menace as Sterling. George Ye’s fight choreography, some of the best around here in many a moon, turns Sean Fanning’s inventive two-way set into a danger zone, especially when Sterling doesn’t have his way.
The Cradle Will Rock, by Marc Blitzstein
10th Avenue Theatre, 930 Tenth Avenue, downtown
Directed by Lindsey Duoos Gearhart; cast: Calah Beck, Andy Collins, Sarah Michelle Cuc, Brett Daniels, Tom Doyle, Katie Harroff, Christopher T. Miller, Amy Northcutt, Doug Shattuck, Anthony Simone, Billy Thompson, Bryan Curtiss White; scenic design, Lindsey Duoos Gearhart; costumes, Rocky DeHaro; lighting, Kandice Smalley; musical director, Billy Thompson
Playing through April 26; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. 619-287-3065 or www.stonesouptheatre.net
Mauritius, by Theresa Rebeck
Cygnet Theatre, Rolando Stage, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area
Directed by Francis Gercke; cast: Jessica John, Sandy Campbell, John DeCarlo, Manny Fernandes, Jack Missett; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Jessica John; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood
Playing through May 10; Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.