Candlelight Dinner Playhouse
1000 AIRPLANES ON THE ROOF
at Centre East
Before A Chorus Line came to epitomize the "high-concept" musical, there was Follies. Combining the songwriting genius of Stephen Sondheim with the staging innovations of codirectors Harold Prince (Sondheim's collaborator on the earlier Company) and Michael Bennett (who, of course, went on to create Chorus Line), the ground-breaking Follies was recognized as an artistic landmark from the moment of its 1971 premiere. Wedding the flamboyance and frivolousness of the old-fashioned musical comedies of the Rodgers and Hart era with the emphasis on psychological development of the mature musical theater pioneered by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Follies used its own inherent stylistic elements--song and dance, sets and costumes, the physical presence of singer-dancer-actors on a stage--as a metaphor for the drama it depicted.
Follies's premise is simple but very potent: a grand old Broadway theater, once the home of the Ziegfeld-like Weismann Follies, is about to be torn down to make room for a parking lot; so retired impresario Dimitri Weismann has invited the performers from his old revues for a "first and last reunion." On hand for the nostalgia trip are the stars of the old shows--the ballroom dance team of Vincent and Vanessa, lyric soprano Heidi, French chanteuse Solange, oily tenor Roscoe--all the familiar types, as well as what's left of the Weismann Girls: statuesque, scantily clad beauties who paraded in an endless succession of glittery production numbers. Now, of course, the "girls" are middle-aged matrons; the image of youth and innocence they embodied has given way to a reality of age and disillusion. It is on this conflict between truth and illusion that the drama of Follies turns.
Sally and Phyllis, the show's heroines, are ex-Weismann Girls who gave up show biz to get married. The reunion, after 30 years, of the ex-chorines, now married to their Stage Door Johnnies, is an occasion fraught with anxiety. Phyllis snared Ben Stone, an upwardly mobile attorney; their promising marriage turned into a bitter, loveless arrangement in which both partners substitute lacerating putdowns for communication and material consumption (along with extramarital affairs) for emotional satisfaction. And Sally, who settled for likable but slightly foolish Buddy after being jilted by Ben, still nurtures the fantasy that Ben once loved her and might love her again.
"We don't do things anymore," cracks bitchy Phyllis. "We say them." That, unfortunately, is the problem with Follies's weakest element, the script by James Goldman. Like his drama The Lion in Winter, Goldman's book for Follies is at best serviceable in establishing the characters and their convoluted relationships; but it fails to develop them in a convincing story, and all too often it settles for lukewarm rehashing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style one-liners.
But in its numerous musical numbers, Follies communicates in its own distinctive, haunting voice. Sondheim's music--songs sung by the characters as part of their interaction as well as numbers ostensibly retrieved from the glorious days of the Weismann Follies--mixes period pastiche with bold originality. The wordplay is brilliant, the music taut and melodious, and the character revelations that emerge through the songs are powerful and personal.
Matching the score is the theatrical concept on which Follies is founded: the reunited middle-aged characters share the decaying Weismann Follies stage with pallid, silent ghosts of their youthful selves. Plump and aging Vincent and Vanessa dance a sensuous bolero in a double duet with their svelte, supernatural alter egos; gray-haired Heidi, her soprano still strong if wobbly with age, reaches out for her young blond doppelganger as she musically yearns for "One More Kiss." And the confrontation between Ben and Phyllis, and Buddy and Sally turns into a series of set pieces--a Follies for their personal follies--in which past and present collide, the couples' older and younger selves vying for dominance. The theatrics of musical comedy become a metaphor for psychological disorientation, with each person getting a song to dramatize his or her crisis: the lovelorn Sally sings a torchy blues (the poignant "Losing My Mind"), hypocritical Ben masquerades as a carefree song-and-dance man in the bubbly, Gershwin-esque "Live, Laugh, Love," and so on.
Follies was not a hit when first produced; part of the reason was its focus on the lives of middle-aged characters, an almost heretical act in a genre populated predominantly by young people or cute seniors. But attitudes have changed--enough, at least, to support a full-scale production of Follies at the suburban Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in 1980 and again now. In William Pullinsi's staging of the work at Candlelight, ripeness is all; though the performers playing the youthful ghosts are strong and entertaining (special mention to Jeff Talbott and Jennifer Nees as the self-deluding young Ben and young Phyllis), it is the dramatic weight of the mature actors that makes Follies a rich evening of theater. Particularly effective are Dennis Kelly, a splendid dramatic singer, as desperate Ben; Joan Dunham as tormented Sally; and, in two knockout cameos, Marilynn Bogetich and Jane McDonough as former Follies girls recalling the dues they've paid (Bogetich's rendition of the bravura "I'm Still Here" is right on the money, edgy and intense but never overdone). The actors' fine work is ably complemented by Kaye Nottbusch's character-based costumes, which, like Sondheim's songs, are rich in period flavor without being overwhelmed by it.
Director Pullinsi, guiding and responding to his seasoned and sensitive cast, gives Follies a fullness and depth that is too often missing from Candlelight's usually snazzy but often shallow productions. With the help of the atmospheric and remarkably varied lighting by Michel Philippi and sets by Gary Baugh, Pullinsi's staging beautifully evokes the feel of a decaying old Broadway theater on Candlelight's slick, medium-sized, in-the-round stage. Though not without its flaws, this is a superb production of a genuinely classic work of American theater.
Like the characters in Follies, the hero of 1000 Airplanes on the Roof--a Kafkaesque figure known only as M.--has trouble sorting out reality from imagination. Thinking about a recent romantic encounter, M. refers to the young woman he's hung up on as "my girlfriend," then sheepishly admits later that she's hardly that at all.
1000 Airplanes's theme of reality versus illusion is thus struck at first in a familiar, "normal" key; but David Henry Hwang's script for this 90-minute "science fiction music drama" soon spins off into extraordinary realms. M., speaking in a tone at once determinedly rational and confused, wonderstruck and terrified, haltingly informs us that he has been repeatedly abducted by extraterrestrial beings, transported to a spaceship hovering above the earth, and subjected to painful and bizarre experiments that include a tiny silver globe being inserted up his nose and into his brain.
Trying desperately to remember this time- and space-altering experience, M. eventually is persuaded to accept enforced amnesia as the only state in which he can function: "It is better to forget," he says the aliens have advised him. "It is pointless to remember. No one will believe you. . . . You will be outcast." The truth of this advice is made clear in M.'s final harrowing interrogation--not by aliens this time, but by a human psychologist.
Hwang's script seems to be based on the accounts of such books as Intruders by Budd Hopkins and Communion by Whitley Strieber, which propound the theory that the abduction of earthlings by alien visitors is not only real but shockingly frequent. The victims of these abductions subsequently suffer many of the same psychological symptoms as do rape victims--disorientation, paranoia, a sense of guilt--partly because of the trauma of the encounter and partly because of the anxiety they experience in trying to deny and forget what has happened to them.
Therein lies the larger theme of 1000 Airplanes. Whether you're inclined to accept M.'s story or write him off as psychotic--the script leaves either option available to the audience--M.'s insights into the nature of social and individual memory are compelling. As in the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with its spiritually dead, clonelike "pod people," M.'s reaction to his real or imagined encounter with extraterrestrials comes to symbolize the dehumanization and de-emotionalization of contemporary life--the willful denial of connection to other humans and the avoidance of introspection.
In focusing so much on Hwang's script, I don't mean to slight the other elements in this remarkable work, which came to the Chicago area recently as part of a U.S. tour following its premiere last summer in Austria (where, ironically, the notion of suppressing unpleasant memories--the Nazi past of Austrian president Kurt Waldheim--was a public concern). The strength of Hwang's text is exceptional in contrast to most dramatic works in the science fiction genre, but it is beautifully supported by the other two components of this trilateral collaboration, music and visual design. The guiding force behind the whole project was, in fact, the composer Philip Glass, who not only wrote the music but directed the production. 1000 Airplanes is a "melodrama" in the true meaning of the term--a text spoken to music, with the dynamics of the text integrated into the music (rather than the music merely functioning as background accompaniment)--with Glass's score (for woodwinds, synthesizers, and soprano voice) played continuously onstage by musicians from the Philip Glass Ensemble.
Glass's music has always seemed to me as sleek and shiny as a spaceship, so it's well suited to Hwang's narrative. Glass's musical technique--distinctive, though obviously shaped by influences ranging from Pink Floyd and Alan Parsons to Ennio Morricone to Richard Strauss--is in fine form in this score, full of shimmering instrumental textures, insistent but not overwhelming rhythms, and subtle variations on the melodic and harmonic material.
To visually represent M.'s unwilling exploration of alternate realities, designer Jerome Sirlin has created a series of visual projections: cityscapes and pictures of woodlands, astronomic images, and abstract designs. The pictures are projected onto the stage, which is raked at a very sharp angle so that the actor playing M. can move about at various levels, thus interacting with the image behind him. The illusion of a live actor inhabiting a three-dimensional cinematic environment is expanded when a scrim is placed in front of the actor so that images are projected both in front of and behind him. Aesthetically marvelous in themselves, the images are also always at the service of the story.
The same is true of Patrick O'Connell's performance as M.: O'Connell (who alternates the role with a woman, Jodi Long) is quite breathtaking to watch just for his adept physical work, as he moves about the steeply angled playing area through the projected images to create the impression of sitting on an apartment stoop, jumping over rooftops, walking into a room, or floating in an alien environment. At the same time, he is always convincing as he tells his astonishing tale; when so much innovative performance work concentrates on musical or visual elements and ignores the need for narrative coherence, a fully conceived and dramatically convincing work like 1000 Airplanes on the Roof is especially to be savored.