HE DOESN'T SAY so, but one wouldn't be surprised if Jack Marshall started salivating. The artistic director of the American Century Theater was watching a televised biography of Marlon Brando when the narrator dropped a morsel that landed like kibble in a hungry dog's bowl: In 1946, Brando earned some of his earliest notices starring alongside Hollywood vet Paul Muni in "A Flag Is Born," a limited-run, rabble-rousing play by the legendary Ben Hecht ("The Front Page"). "Why is this sensational and controversial show a show I've never heard of?" Marshall recalls thinking.Since his theater specializes in staging lost or neglected 20th-century works, Marshall hit the Internet with a vengeance, finally locating the script six months later in a Florida public library. Never published, the play had been commissioned as a publicity and fundraising stunt by the American League for a Free Palestine, a Zionist organization pushing to break -- by force, if necessary -- British restrictions on Jewish settlement in what is now Israel. (England controlled the region at the time.) Brando played David, a young survivor of the Treblinka concentration camp who rejects the suffering-based worldview of Muni's Tevya, an older Jew wandering homeless through the aftermath of the Holocaust, in favor of a more militant, "fend for ourselves" stance.
Marshall was determined to add "Flag" to his company's repertoire: "It had theatrical significance because of Brando and Muni. It had historical significance because of the connection with the establishment of Israel. And it was a work of a major writer," he says. "It pretty much defined the exact kind of play that we spend our time looking for."
Marshall admits, however, that the script presented some challenges: Hecht's freewheeling structure interweaves fever dreams and impassioned agitprop with biblical history and metaphysics. Marshall's own program notes reference the "huge set pieces, massive cast, choir and orchestra" of the original production, and it wasn't immediately evident how the play could be produced within the theater company's significantly less accommodating budgets. So he turned to director Steven Scott Mazzola to craft a solution.
"I really didn't want to do it when I first read it," Mazzola says. "I just didn't understand how it worked. . . . It doesn't make sense in a traditional way. I think [Hecht] just wanted to Scotch-tape all of the 'buttons' together. That's what's great about the script and what's so frustrating about the script: It doesn't give you any ways to do it."
Mazzola ultimately signed on and found a framework he could work with, transporting the main action to the deck of a ship loaded with Holocaust survivors awaiting admission into Palestine. The chorus of passengers creates the play's various characters and environments using only their trunks and the contents thereof. "I don't think I've solved it," says Mazzola with characteristic self-deprecation. "[But] it definitely fits the mission of the American Century. It's unwieldy, but I don't know if you just walk away from every project because it's unwieldy."Marshall concurs on the latter point, especially since the current state of Middle East affairs has given an ostensibly disposable script some unexpected present-day resonance. "One of the reasons it disappeared is it had a specific objective at a specific time and then the organization that commissioned it, having accomplished their objective, went out of business and didn't see any need for the play," he says. "But it was clear to me when I read it that, through all the years, it all of a sudden was relevant again -- relevant to sort of help people understand, for example, the roots of many of the contentious issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict. [And] certainly, some of the arguments put forth by Hecht in the interest of the Jews could be picked up -- without editing, but with some irony -- by Palestinians today."
"The play cuts every which way you want," Marshall says. "It automatically does what you hope good theater will do, which is provoke people to discuss exactly what the issues are."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Flag is Born
Playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht created a piece of agitprop every bit as clean-limbed and effective as his farces: Staged on Broadway and taken on the road in the late '40s, the show was credited with helping to galvanize the U.S. public's sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Jews stranded in occupied Europe's displaced-persons camps, with raising a boatload of money to transport them to Palestine, and with holding the British government's feet to the fire on the question of whether to let them in. Out of print and unproduced for 50-odd years, A Flag is Born is a perfect project for the American Century Theater, which makes a mission of digging up such notable but neglected artifacts, and sure-handed director Steven Scott Mazzola nails both the politics and the personal dimensions, capably updating a script that has, inevitably, taken on a dated air. Tevye and Zelda (Joel Snyder and Annie Houston), are two ancients trudging their way toward a new land they can barely imagine; David (Keith Warren) is the bitter young camp survivor who comes to mock and to mourn with them. Hecht presents them as opposing types--the Jew of old Europe, despairing and powerless, a victim, vs. the grim-faced young militant who would succeed him, determined never again to be victimized--but there's enough humanity in his sketches to let Mazzola's principals make surprisingly real people out of them. Things drag a little in the several dream sequences--we know how the story ended, after all--but a half-century of history puts it all into a new perspective.
(TG) Gunston Arts Center Theater II, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Thursdays-Saturdays & Wednesdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Sat., 4/3, & Sun., 4/4, at 2:30 p.m. $23-$26 to April 24 (703) 533-8782
Birth of a nation
TODAY, WITH THE situation in the Middle East as tumultuous as itís ever been, the American Century Theater has chosen to resurrect "A Flag Is Born," a nearly forgotten play that vigorously promotes the creation of a Jewish state.
Written in 1946 by Ben Hecht, a playwright best known as co-creator of the classics "Front Page" and "Chicago," "A Flag Is Born" was intended to illustrate the horrors of the Holocaust and rally support for its survivors. Directing this tricky show, which hasnít been produced in 56 years, is up-and-coming gay director Steven Scott Mazzola.
Hechtís version of the play presents three concentration camp survivors trudging out of Eastern Europe on a dusty road, hopefully, headed toward Palestine. The trio ó an elderly couple and David (Keith Lubeley), an angry young man ó stop at a graveyard.
Amid the gravestones, the old man dreams of his hometown synagogue before its destruction, thinks of King Saul at the battle of Gilead, and converses with King David. He then makes a plea for the future with a Council of the Mighty, which goes unheard.
The following day, the old people die. David (a role created by a strapping young Marlon Brando on Broadway) is contemplating suicide when three Jewish soldiers arrive and promise to take him to Palestine. At this point, Hecht via David, serves a scathing indictment against American Jews asking where were they while the Jews in Europe were being killed.
With Mazzola at the helm, audiences wonít be seeing exactly what Hecht had in mind.
"Iíve set the play on a transport vessel somewhere adrift at sea," Mazzola says. "Being stuck in the water provides a natural tension that the script doesnít have on its own. Instead of a narrator introducing the show and commenting on the action, there is now a chorus consisting of the entire 14-member cast.
Mazzola says Hecht was doing a presentational diorama in a way.
"Now we have passengers in a boat telling a story; the language becomes more personal," he says. "Itís less about the fourth wall and more about the individualsí stories."
ACCORDING TO MAZZOLA, when the show premiered it was important to render a precise portrait of World War II atrocities against Jews through long monologues because the horrors were hitherto unknown.
"A Flag Is Born" was a deliberate piece of agitprop designed to encourage American audiences to support the creation of Israel. After each performance in its six-stop North American city tour, the hat was passed, collecting thousands of dollars in contributions.
ďFriends have asked that if, by doing this show, does it mean that Iím pro-Zionist," says Mazzola, 32. "Iím really more pro-awareness. In a perfect world, Iíd like to see ĎA Flag Is Borní done in repertory with a work that would give us the missing part of the conversation. Unfortunately, I donít think there is an American play that gives voice to the Arab-Palestinian view."
Even if the debate seems a bit lopsided, Mazzola stresses how important it is that the American Century Theater is continuing the conversation and providing a bit of historical perspective.
"Those of us working on the play, arenít taking one side," he says. "Weíre trying to re-ignite interest in the issue, and aid in furthering dialog. Post-show discussions are scheduled, featuring both Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints."