Tradition of political theater refuses to let film do all the talking

The rule of thumb in this intense political season seems to be: If you want to send a message, deliver a documentary film.

Yet what about the more venerable medium of live theater as a conduit for social critique? Can modern theater make a provocative partisan argument as effectively as a reality-based movie can? And are playwrights and actors racing to lobby their patrons with timely works that speak to the pressing concerns of our day?

Of course, the most adroit dramatist could not imagine crafting a play with the missile range of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," one of a barrage of bluntly partisan docu-films released in this rallying presidential election season.

Given the limited distribution and labor intensity of live theater, it inevitably reaches a tiny wedge of the viewership movies, DVDs, videos and other "home entertainment" offerings attract.

In fact, the only theatrical events generating anything more than $100 million earned by "Fahrenheit 9/11" since its June release are such uncontroversial mega-musicals as "The Lion King" and "Hairspray."

Yet in Seattle, New York and elsewhere, some politically ardent stage folk are not yielding the rhetorical battleground entirely to filmmakers.

They're going talking-head to talking-head, as it were, with such combative movies as "Fahrenheit 9/11" on one hand, and Michael Wilson's counter-punching "Michael Moore Hates America" (poised for release soon) on the other.

But how can live drama speak directly, potently to such national concerns? And why does political theater face such an uphill struggle for hearts and minds in contemporary America?

Preaching to the choir

Oscar-winning actor and activist Tim Robbins reaped a hit Off Broadway and in Los Angeles with his raucous Iraq anti-war satire, "Embedded." And Robbins' theater troupe the Actors Gang will take the show on national tour soon. (No Seattle dates are set scheduled.)

But "Embedded" got slammed by most New York critics, who judged this collection of barbed skits "feeble," "heavy-handed" and worse. The New Yorker said watching the piece was "like an axe dipped in political correctness had been wedged into the back of your neck."

Curiously, Los Angeles reviewers were more receptive to the play, with the L.A. Times praising it as "rowdy," "engaging" and "as snarlingly eloquent as a garage-rock guitar solo."

This points, in part, to an East Coast vs. West Coast polarization of critical opinion. But that aside, most openly partisan, rhetorical plays are received with suspicion by critics — and often, without the cachet of a star like Robbins, by audiences.

"Preaching," instead of exposing and illuminating, can distance and alienate viewers from the message at hand. Such was the case in a recent Seattle theater piece, "Shock Brigades," an earnest yet strident, over-romanticized study of female combatants in numerous wars.

In this country, few ensembles handle didacticism as adroitly as the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which each summer presents a political musical-comedy outdoors in Bay Area parks. This year's show: an anti-Bush western, "Showdown at Crawford Gulch."

Mime Troupe members say they don't mind "preaching to the choir," because their "choir" of political leftists needs rhetorical ammunition and cheerleading for the challenges to come.

But a key to the Mime Troupe's 40 years of success is how clever and entertaining their work can be — a badge of theatrical skill, not just conviction.

Timeliness vs. timelessness

Some political plays become time-honored classics because they still have much to say to us decades, even centuries, after first making a splash.

Seattle's Wooden O Theatre tonight winds up its outdoor tour of the ominously ever-relevant "Julius Caesar" with a performance at Anderson Park in Redmond. This cogent modern-dress staging reminds us how eternally insightful Shakespeare's depiction of "regime change," conspiracy and the uses and abuses of political ambition can be.

Also in the Seattle wings: "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," opening at the Capitol Hill Arts Center on Thursday and running through Aug. 22. Bertolt Brecht's 1941 satire recasts Nazi leader Adolph Hitler's rise to power as the savagely comic ascendancy of a mob boss, turned business mogul, in gangland Chicago.

A recent hit New York stand of "Arturo Ui," with Al Pacino as the thug-turned-tyrant, stressed contemporary parallels (and paranoias). But Seattle interpreters beware: Brecht's wordy script demands savvy performers and top-speed pacing to fly.

The arrival this spring of two high-profile New York revivals, of the scathingly irreverent Stephen Sondheim musical "Assassins" and Tony Kushner's Mideast drama, "Homebody/Kabul" might have seemed politically opportune. The Kushner plays examines East-West rifts, through a British family's experience in Taliban-run Afghanistan. And Sondheim's show scans a century of American political violence.

Neither caught fire at the box office, however, languishing in a kind of thematic "gray zone" between two more popular realms: resonant classics and the hunger for newer, more urgently topical works.

When it comes to addressing au courant topics of note, American theater artists aren't demonstrating the lightning reflexes of their English counterparts. Though London's current summer season is lagging at the box office, new plays about terrorism and the Iraq War are popular exceptions.

A standout among them: "Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," created by London's small-scale Tricycle Theatre. This docudrama is based on direct testimony that sheds light on the interrogation methods and prolonged incarcerations of hundreds of suspected foreign and American terrorists, at the U.S. government detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Sunday (London) Times praised the show as "no tendentious piece of agitprop but a clear-eyed assessment of a grave abuse of human rights," and declared, "The British theatre — indeed every Briton — should be proud of this play."

American playgoers and critics will weigh in on "Guantánamo" when it is mounted Off Broadway in September.

Also fast on the draw is noted British playwright Sir David Hare, whose newest script, "Stuff Happens," opens next month at London's National Theatre.

The title derives from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's famous response to the looting of Baghdad, at a press conference in April 2003. And Hare's play promises to be a frontal attack on the lead-up to the American and British invasion of Iraq, and the war policies of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Timidity or restraint?

British playwrights as outspoken as David Hare are building on a centuries-long heritage of rapid-response drama that goes back to the Elizabethans, and more generous public subsidy of the arts. And there remains an openness, indeed an appetite, in Britain and Europe for theater that takes a stance on controversial concerns — mostly, but not only, from the left end of the political spectrum.

Since the Vietnam War era's flurry of political drama, many American theaters and artists seem (with some notable exceptions) slower to react with bold, thoughtful artistic rejoinders to current events.

Is this due to a timidity based largely on commercial concerns? On fears of turning off and driving away much-coveted subscribers and single ticket buyers, in a time of harsh economic realities and fiery partisanship?

Or do our stages lag in this area because in this media-saturated land we look first to flickering screens for news and views, and to theater for something else — be it comic escapism, feel-good musicality or profound explorations of character that transcend the morning headlines?

Didacticism has become a dirty word in a cultural environment where talk-show comics are expected to joke equally about politicians of the right, left and center, critics tend to disparage overtly rhetorical broadsides, and most regional theaters plan carefully "balanced" seasons too far in advance to take advantage of "breaking" dramas.

But thanks to its intimacy, verbalism and artistic license, theater still can offer a vibrant arena for imaginative illumination and gripping debate, on matters of urgent national import — if artists and producers dare, and care, to seize the day.

Tony Kushner, whose decade-old AIDS drama "Angels in America" remains surprisingly timely, defended this brand of theatrical discourse as essential in a recent New York Times interview.

"It's never the case that a work of art is directly responsible for changing the world," Kushner commented, adding, "People make the world, [and] art is one of the many ways we do that."

Misha Berson: