hagiography (n.) 1. the biography of saints. 2. a worshipful or idealizing biography.
Religious pageantry abounds in April. Understandably, most of it goes critically unreviewed. After all, the intended audiences of such shows are the already faithful, who generally only ask that the music and amateur tableaux reflect a shared belief, and not a shared aesthetic.
(Besides, there's always been the sneaking suspicion, in theological and theatrical circles both, that Hell's original inhabitant was actually the First Critic, and all those who've followed have been destined to the same locale.)
But in exploring--and, arguably, overdramatizing--the lives of two widely venerated people, public productions this April from Raleigh Little Theater and the Drama Circle venture into the problematic realm of theatrical hagiography.
Two revelations in the past 15 years have forever changed our perception of Anne Frank's story. First, the initial critical edition of her diaries in the 1980s disclosed that her father, Otto Frank, had edited out whole sections of the work in which Ms. Frank had written critically about the relationship between her parents, and about her own nascent sexuality. Then in 1998, a former employee of the Anne Frank Foundation revealed five additional pages Otto Frank had suppressed, in which Ms. Frank further analyzed her mother Edith's unhappiness in her parents' marriage. Biographers studying the Frank family have corroborated much of the originally excised content.
The original Broadway version of The Diary of Anne Frank was staged in 1955, long before such revelations came to light. Although it was widely celebrated as a monument to one young woman's faith in humanity in the darkest hour of the 20th century, it was also criticized for making Frank's story ethnically neutral, de-emphasizing the Jewish culture at the center of the subjects' world in a bid for mass audiences.
Playwright Wendy Kesselman's 1997 adaptation of The Diary--a fundamental restructuring of the 1955 play--came after the disclosures of the first critical edition, and uses material found therein.
If you haven't seen this play in the past decade, it's time to check back in. This Diary is different in some important ways from the one we all remember.
The tensions between the two families and third guest seeking shelter are realized, earlier and more fully in Kesselman's Diary than in the 1955 version. A bit more Jewish culture stands revealed at the end. And the original work's closing line of hope is now a voice-over, juxtaposed against the betrayal of the hidden. Significantly, the two works end on completely different notes.
For all this, the relationship between Otto and Edith still raises big questions. The new version emphasizes Anne's emotional estrangement with her mother more than it ever does her ultimate sympathy with her. Any darker insights into the parents' marriage are still resolutely left offstage.
In the RLT production, Fred Corlett as Otto Frank is never less than an avuncular, perfect husband, while Kathleen Rudolph is an Edith perpetually worried about her family's situation, but not her marriage.
Our suspicions are further aroused when this idealized father is also the historical figure whose initial edits removed the troublesome details about his family disclosed above.
They are raised even further when Otto returns to the hiding place after the war, and breaks down onstage upon discovering Ms. Frank's diary on the floor.
Because that's historically inaccurate as well: Family friends grabbed the diaries and other personal effects after the Franks had been betrayed, and kept them until after the war. They did so because the Nazis would have confiscated them if they hadn't.
It is troubling that we are arguably confronted in this production with hagiography, particularly in its final scenes--not of Anne, but of Otto instead.
When I wrote about A Lesson Before Dying, I noted that the atrocities associated with the history of racism in the South constitute a bottomless pit when it comes to theatrical representation. No less is clearly true for the Holocaust: No matter how "graphic" a show is prepared to be, all know that historical truth was infinitely worse. Going in, we already know that whatever we see can't begin to suggest what the actual experiences were like.
Those concerns arise even when there is no question about the facticity of events. But those questions now riddle our experience of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Different questions accompanied our viewing of On the Rooftop with Bill Sears, a biographical one-person show that recounts the conversion of an obscure mid-century television star to the Baha'i faith. The opening premise is problematic: Sears ostensibly re-enters a TV studio to shut things down after a Sunday broadcast, finds us, the audience, there, and then proceeds to tell one of the most intimate stories of his life.
Still, under the direction of J. Chachula, writer/performer Mark Perry quickly gains altitude and admirably wraps us in the tale of an enigmatic childhood dream, interspersed with family anecdotes and an idiosyncratic personal history of the dawn of television.
But when Sears' character feels he has to prove his faith is the right one to us--by proving that his dream was actually mystically connected to the advent of a leader in the Baha'i faith--a character-driven work delves into the proselytic. More than one audience member characterized the show in a talkback session last Friday as "a commercial for Baha'i beyond that point."
It's easy to imagine this work initially being written for the faithful, as Perry suggested in remarks after the show--and just as easy to see how the focus began to shift with further development. But at this point, On the Rooftop's focus is split somewhere in between.
Religious experiences and traditions have informed so much of visual art and classical music. Arguably, in both genres this has been because artists have been able to use beliefs as a way to touch upon universally held feelings and experiences.
But in On the Rooftop, Sears marginalizes his own religious experience before we can, when demonstrating why he could never mention his own religious beliefs on television. The problem: such an act tends to have the same effect on a theatrical audience watching the show.
It's schismatic for a Sears who truly believes he has The Answer--for us all. He'd love to share it with us--and proceeds to, unbidden.
This is where the writing most distances him from an audience not already of the Baha'i.
Too frequently, hagiography distances us from its subjects. It makes their times too remote, their sacrifices too great, their faith too perfect. Somehow when their humanity is taken from them, they're rendered unapproachable.
To some degree we see this happening in both of the works above. It's the last thing their authors would have wished for--but the first peril when writing about saints.
Reviews & Openings
OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS: Eye of God, Peace College, through Sunday, April 25, 7:30 p.m. , $10-$5, 508-2051; Faust , Shakespeare & Originals, Chatham Mill, Pittsboro through Saturday, April 24, 111 E. Parrish St. Durham, April 27-May 1, $10-$8, 286-0456; Groundlessness, Even Exchange Dance Theater, Kennedy Theater, BTI, April 24 (2 & 8 pm), April 25 2 p.m.; $15, 828-2377; Holiday, Deep Dish Theater, Thursday-Sunday through May 15, $14-$10. 968-1515; Inversions Dance in thoughts like this, Great Hall, UNC, Wednesday, April 21, $5-$3, 914-3100; The Laramie Project, Durham Tech Thespian Society, Friday-Saturday, April 23-24, 7:30 p.m., $6-$3, 686-3445; A Lesson Before Dying, Justice Theater Project, Cardinal Gibbons High School, Sunday, April 25, 7 p.m., Free, 870-8715; Meredith DanceWorks, Jones Auditorium, Thursday-Saturday, April 22-24, $8-$6, 760-2840; N.C. State Dance Company, Stewart Theater, Friday-Saturday, April 23-24, $10-$5, 515-1100; N.C. Youth Tap Ensemble in skoo-ba-de-bop, Carolina Theater, Saturday, April 24, 7 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m., $15-$10, 960-3030; Poor Super Man, Raleigh Ensemble Players, Thursday-Sunday through May 9, $15-$10, 832-9607.
**** Luminosity, Playmakers Rep--In this shattered family history, playwright Nick Stafford probes the murkier racial past of a present-day white English family of affluent social activists. When Debra, a black adopted daughter, uncovers documents recording the involvement of the family's Quaker patriarch in the slave trade, her search for the family's past unravels the braids of three different generations, each a century apart. What each does with the issues of race profoundly influences the family's future.
As Stafford shifts back and forth between generations, director David Hammond all but superimposes one upon the other at times, as if to telescope time in an English "physic garden" of medicinal herbs and plants, and underline the blood ties all characters have with the same earth. This understandable instinct confuses matters somewhat, though, when scenes which must have happened inside a South African jeweler's shop appear to take place, like the rest of the play, outdoors.
While Stafford's attitude towards history recalls the poetry and prose of Robert Penn Warren in places, the outcome of his character's inquiry is ultimately more redemptive. Debra's ultimate questions, "If we are ethical, what should we do? ... What should we say to each other? How should we be?" start a conversation which has not finished by the end of the play. Ultimately, Hammond invokes mystery, in the service of justice: Sometimes, when blood goes into the ground, healing plants inexplicably come forth. How else, Luminosity asks, are any to be healed? (Tuesday-Sunday through May 1. $32-$10. 962-7529.)
** Portraits in Black II, Front Porch Entertainment--The on-stage education continues for this amateur group of writers and actors headed by director Dorothy Clark. Though Christopher Richardson's first-act perceptions on race and relationships are frequently on the money, he obviously hasn't learned yet that brevity's the soul of wit.
The uncredited longer works in the second act, broadly adapted from African-American folklore, are the most rewarding parts of this collection. In "The Ways of Women," Sheneeka Moore, Steven Marshall and Carolyn Jefferson all put in vivid character touches respectively as Eve, Beelzebub and The Lord. But faster pacing--and significantly tighter editing--are needed in all of these sketches to sustain an audience's interest. (Saturday-Sunday through April 24. $15-$10. 683-1709.)