Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

The Language of Birds: Rosa Luxemburg and Me/Machinal

by

comment

THE LANGUAGE OF BIRDS: ROSA LUXEMBURG AND ME

Blue Rider Theatre

She was considered by her assassins so dangerous that they attacked her not one way but three--first bludgeoning her senseless, then shooting her, then throwing her into a Berlin canal. But the woman who inspired such superstitious awe in 1919 had already faced an end to her life, not long before. The dark years for Rosa Luxemburg--a leader in the German Social Democratic Party, a founding member of the revolutionary Spartacus League, personal acquaintance of Lenin--were those between 1914 and 1918. Incarcerated as an enemy of the state for her antiwar activities, with the weariness of age encroaching and only her gardening and bird-watching to sustain her, Luxemburg wrote doubting letters to her compatriots, questioning the permanence of her accomplishments and her mission.

In 1992, on the 73rd anniversary of Luxemburg's death, a young performance artist listens to a lecturer on WBEZ unenthusiastically list the achievements of this all-but-forgotten woman. And in The Language of Birds: Rosa Luxemburg and Me, written by Donna Blue Lachman and Tim Fiori, that young artist turns to those letters for comfort. Chafing under the rejection of her latest endeavor--even her best friend could say nothing good about it--and wondering if all her hard work has been for nothing, the artist wanders into a garden where she discovers one of Luxemburg's letters buried in the soil. The humanity revealed in the letter sparks the artist's empathy, and she enters into Luxemburg's prison experience, where the eternality of nature--reflected in each flower and free-flying creature--bolsters her morale as it did Luxemburg's. After she was released from prison, Luxemburg resumed her activism with a renewed sense of purpose--which led to her untimely death. And the artist, released from the prison of her own despair, returns healed to her own time to take up her mission, and in doing so plants the seeds--literally and figuratively--left her by her spiritual mentor.

Lachman, who plays both Luxemburg and the artist, has based her career on remarkable portrayals of female icons. (Her 1987 Jeff Award-winning Frida: The Last Portrait, based on the life of painter Frida Kahlo, is scheduled for revival later this season.) The Language of Birds offers us a look at the private side of the visionary political activist through the eyes of a modern activist in the arts. The script maps the artist's journey back in time with such articulate coherence that we follow it as easily as we might a hostess guiding us from one room to another. Director David Cromer keeps the pace even and unhurried. Delicately pensive old-world incidental music is supplied by the redoubtable William Schwarz and Miriam Sturm. But it is Lachman herself--a bit raspy on opening night, to be sure--who transports us between the past and the present with unwavering intelligence and seamless flexibility, breathing life into a historical figure about whom we leave the theater wanting to know more.

MACHINAL

Eclipse Theatre Company

Helen's stenographer job is stifling her, so when the company vice president proposes marriage she accepts, though she finds his touch repulsive. She has hysterics on her wedding night and after the birth of their daughter falls into a severe depression, hallucinating about dead puppies and babies. A few years later she has an affair with a soldier of fortune who tells her how he killed two Mexican bandits with a rock-filled wine bottle in order to escape capture. Helen's thoughts turn increasingly to suicides and jailbreaks, until one night she murders her husband. She pleads innocent at her trial, but a potentially incriminating statement from her former lover so unsettles her that she confesses. As she's led away to be executed, she rejoices that death will set her free at last.

Time has not been kind to Sophie Treadwell's Machinal. This 1928 social melodrama is a blatant facsimile of Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, and its psychopathic heroine is pitifully helpless. (When the judge asks her why she didn't get a divorce if she wanted to be free of her husband, she answers, "I didn't want to hurt him.") But the Eclipse Theatre Company, under the inventive direction of Susan Leigh, has swept the cobwebs off this obscure fragment of American theater history, using orchestrated dialogue, slow-motion mime, and other expressionistic effects: a wedding bed no bigger than a footstool, for example, and a judge's gavel that falls with the resounding crash of a dungeon gate. The trial scene is as mad as any in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with the prosecuting attorney conjuring evidence from such unexpected sources as a magician. The 11 cast members play some 33 characters with agility and imagination. Especially fine are Tom Dwight as the hoggish but not evil husband, Chris Olson as the gentle outlaw lover, and Scott Haven as a weary (but scene-stealing) speakeasy waiter. Most impressive, however, is the ensemble's offstage vocal montage, which seems to re-create the entire city of New York within the tiny 45-seat Bucktown theater.

Add a comment