“The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything – gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness – rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations…. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre.” – Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double (1938)“…agitprop theatre, a highly politicized theatre that originated in 1920s Europe and spread to the United States; the plays of Bertolt Brecht are a notable example. Russian agitprop theater was noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule. Gradually the term agitprop came to describe any kind of highly politicized art.” – Wikipedia entry on “Agitprop Theatre”
“Stop the world/Take a picture/Try to capture/To ensure this moment lasts/We’re still in it, but in a minute -/That’s the limit – and this present will be past.” – “Stop the World,” Come From Away
“I’m not your bitch. Don’t hang your shit on me.” – Madonna, “Human Nature” from Bedtime Stories
______________________It’s funny – not “ha ha” funny, but odd funny – that I haven’t much wanted to write anything else since seeing Joker three weeks ago. That film – and Joaquin Phoenix’ transcendent performance – took up permanent residence in my brain and refracted everything I’ve viewed since. I’m still digesting that film and its profound reflection of our fragmented society. I want to see it again (and again), but maybe it’s for the best that life has intervened and, consequently, I haven’t been able to indulge that impulse.
Joker makes its plea for compassion and empathy in strokes both bold and nuanced, and it leaves a bruise (on the heart). That same earnest desire to reach through and wake us from our collective self-absorption and malaise was evident in two other performances I’ve taken in recently: Come From Away‘s National Tour stop at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre and Madonna’s Madame X tour residency at the Chicago Theatre, one a decided crowd-pleaser and the other a riding crop upside the head. I’m sure you can guess which is which.Come From Away is a beautiful show, on its surface a pastoral ode to the power of human kindness, belying its sharp-eyed critique of the darker sides of human nature.
Wrapped in the aural comfort food of its Chieftains-esque score, Come From Away tells the story of 38 planes rerouted to the tiny Newfoundland town of Gander during the days following 9/11 and the joys (and tensions) of a tight-knit community faced with housing and feeding and comforting thousands of stranded, anxious, and exhausted international travelers.What is brilliant about the show, beyond its Brechtian theatricality (a dozen actors play all of the townspeople and all of the visitors, using a handful of mismatched kitchen chairs, a costume item or two, and a clutch of flawless accents), is the fact that Come From Away is not a Valentine to 9/11. This isn’t some fawning piece of jingoistic nationalism. The heartwarming positivity of seeing a plucky band of Canadians open their doors and hearts to a rather spiky bunch of displaced Americans and other nationals is not without a few bumps along the way. Irene Sankoff’s and David Hein’s remarkably integrated book and score do not shy away from the ugliness of racism, misogyny, ageism, homophobia, materialism, and the overarching fear that can eat us all alive in the face of crisis.
That said, the show blazes a bright and inspiring path in its “warts and all” philosophy, leaving us with the comforting affirmation that there are in fact angels among us who truly care about all creatures (great and small).Turning to Madonna for a moment, I read a review recently that described her latest recording Madame X as a cast album in search of its show. An apt description, given what I witnessed at the Chicago Theatre last week. I, for one, am a fan of Madonna when she lets her freak flag fly and doesn’t care one whit for marketability. Her Dick Tracy-inspired album I’m Breathless is a good example (ironic since it was clearly initiated as a marketing ploy … and turned out to be anything but.) Madame X is her nuttiest collection in years, Paul Simon’s Graceland as designed by Yoko Ono, Giorgio Moroder, and Tex Avery, full of world beats, polemics, and gobsmacking u-turns. As a result, the album begs for some theatrical staging, and Madonna, for the most part delivers, taking her trademark arena/stadium excess and translating for much smaller and more intimate environs like the Chicago Theatre (where she is currently in residence as part of her Madame X world tour).
For the most part, it’s a very compelling switch, but, continuing the aforementioned “cast album” comparison, if these small theatre residencies are Madame X‘s out of town tryouts, I think Madge needs to send the “book” back for some revisions.
When our Queen of Pop tries to be overtly political and offer “profound” declamations of individualism, she comes off like a college freshman who has just discovered Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin. Madonna has never been what one would consider an exceptional comic raconteur so the show’s interminable patter between songs, ostensibly structured to create intimacy, provocation, and laughter falls exceptionally, head-scratchingly flat. When the show focuses on more of a one-world ideology, with its polyglot mixing bowl of international flavors and styles, the implied politics of love and understanding are much more impactful.
The bulk of the show’s set list is pulled from the album Madame X with more than a few classics woven in: “Express Yourself,” “Rescue Me,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “American Life” (sounding fresher and more prescient than ever), “Frozen” (a breathtaking performance which includes floor-to-ceiling projections of Madonna’s first-child Lourdes dancing as her mother sings this haunting hit from Ray of Light, the album inspired by Lourdes’ birth), “La Isla Bonita,” “Human Nature,” and a rousing “Like a Prayer.”
The old songs fit nicely alongside the new, providing a thematic arc of free-expression and heartfelt-spirituality that is quite effective, juxtaposed as they are with dystopian images of a society skidding off the rails: dancers in police garb, gas masks, and other militant fetish-wear or the recurring martial motif of a vintage typewriter whose striking keys double as gunfire throughout the production.
When Madonna visits some of the stronger material from Madame X – the stuttering sci-fi shmaltz of “Future,” the slinky robo-cha-cha-cha of “Medellin,” or the sultry disco of “Crave” – the show is a luscious dream.
As with every Madonna tour, there are a couple of numbers to preserve in the proverbial time capsule. In the case of Madame X (in addition to some wonderful exploration of Lisbon’s Fado culture), “Batuka” with its accompaniment by the all-women Orquestra Batukadeiras is a rocket-blast of fist-pumping feminism. The show’s encore “I Rise” is a goose-bump-inducing salute to any and all who’ve been marginalized by a society that praises conformity above all else.
As Madonna marched into the audience and out the lobby doors of the Chicago Theatre Thursday night, her entire retinue in tow and chanting “I Rise,” I found myself moved to tears and thinking there may be hope for all of the Arthur Flecks in this world after all.
There’s nothin’ you can do to me that hasn’t been done
Not bulletproof, shouldn’t have to run from a gun
River of tears ran dry, let ’em run
No game that you can play with me, I ain’t one
‘Cause I’m goin’ through it, yeah
I know you see the tragic in it (alright)
Just hold on to the little bit of magic in it (yeah)
I can’t break down now
I can’t take that now (I can’t take that now)
Died a thousand times
Managed to survive (I managed to survive)
I can’t break down now
I can’t take that (I can’t take that)
I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it, up above it
(I rise) I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it all
I managed to survive
Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you
No one can hurt you now unless you want them to (Unless you want)
No one can hurt you now unless you love ’em too
Unless you love ’em too
– Madonna, “I Rise” from Madame X
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.