Reviews & Media Coverage
Dancing with the Stars and Stripes: American Century does a nice Passosdoble.
Washington City Paper
There's an unmistakable whiff of Ragtime in the opening sequence of U.S.A., with those parading swells and those vintage projections, and there's a John Jakes–y flavor to the whole affair—but then North & South and that sprawling Kent Family foolishness came later, didn't they, so they can't help but seem like bourgie-escapist rip-offs of John Dos Passos, whose eponymous three-volume American saga provides the source material for the latest from the American Century Theater.
This streamlined take on Dos Passos' jazzy, impressionistic epic tracks the rise of a canny public-relations titan (charismatic newcomer Evan Hoffman) from the dawn of the last century through the beginning of the Great Depression, glancing along the way at the events and influences that shape him and his era. A linked plot follows the story of a Georgetown girl (Monalisa Arias) and her impetuous brother (Bruce Alan Rauscher, tackling several parts with an agreeable freshness and humor); the Titanic's sinking, the advent of the assembly line and of organized labor, the war that didn't end all wars, and the corporate cynicism that bred and fed and lurked behind and under the lot of it—all that and rather more gets Dos Passos' dispirited attention here, and Jacqueline Manger's light-footed staging somehow makes disillusionment almost seem to dance.
In fact it does dance: Dos Passos and collaborator Paul Shyre (best known for writing James Whitmore's long-running one-man Will Rogers' U.S.A.) specify many a musical interlude, and Manger sets her cast to moving as often as she can. The Charleston, of course, rears its silly head, but the script also offers Patricia Hurley a chance to swan about grandly (her Isadora Duncan dies rather prettily in this version); other notables who turn up, in between visits with the increasingly empty-eyed PR maven, include the Wright brothers and labor organizer Eugene V. Debs.
The most indelible diversion (if you can call it that) is a chilling sequence built around the creation of a tomb for America's unknown soldiers: The writing represents Dos Passos at his most brutally kaleidoscopic—beautiful images and blunt horrors crowding in on one another, and the able American Century cast whirls through it with a kind of fierce reverence. As an older, supposedly wiser America confronts another war, another administration bent on repurposing language to sell its policies, U.S.A. is a bracing reminder of what the cost of violence has always been.
American Century Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, has again found an obscure script and restored it to vibrant life. U.S.A., the 1959 adaptation of John Dos Passos' trilogy of novels by the author and Paul Shyre, encapsulates an epic story of America in the early 20th century into a fascinating miniature panorama with the help of six skillful actors.
Dos Passos wrote his novels - The 42nd Parallel, 1919 and The Big Money - in the 1930s; the books examine the time between 1899 and 1929, tracing the period when America grew into a world power. (The trilogy was clearly an influence on the works of E.L. Doctorow, especially Ragtime.) Dos Passos' characters are cogs in the great machine of American society, whose stories coexist with brief biographies of historical figures and the author's personal observations. The author and Shyre retained the multiple points of view in their stage adaptation, but streamlined the number of characters and events for clarity's sake.
Unlike a novel, which can sprawl in many directions and deal with many lead characters, a dramatic work benefits from a single central character and throughline for coherence. Shyre and Dos Passos have crafted the play around J. Ward Moorehouse (Evan Hoffmann), who rises from genteel but poor surroundings in Wilmington, Delaware, to command an international public relations empire. The marketing of image (or, today, spin) was a new science at the time, and Hoffmann manages to convey the iron will and equivocation that eventually emerge from behind the boyish face and sunny smile.
Hoffmann is well matched by Bruce Alan Rauscher and Kim-Scott Miller in a series of incisive portraits, specifically Rauscher as a sailor looking for his place in the world and Miller's hilarious cameo as a blustering health-food magnate.
The women are not quite as good as the men, but still effective: Monalisa Arias as the sailor's rather prim sister, who becomes Moorehouse's secretary; Patricia Hurley as Moorehouse's platonic companion, an interior decorator, and briefly as the notorious dancer Isadora Duncan; and Amy Quiggins as an heiress who helps Moorehouse achieve his dreams.
While all of the performers have their highlights, the most striking visual pictures come when they work together: re-creating the Wright Brothers' first flight, for example, or the strongest moment, bringing to life Dos Passos' impressionistic poem of the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
Director Jacqueline Manger keeps the production free of superfluous movement and other distractions on the neutral set by Michael deBlois. AnnMarie Castrigno's lighting design and the projections by James G. Champlain serve to anchor the scenes, along with Rip Claassen's evocative costumes and Brendon Vierra's sound design.
U.S.A. Fireworks are in order!
By: Debbie Minter Jackson
Under the fast-paced direction of Jacqueline Manger, U.S.A is now in full production at American Century Theater (ACT), simply the best place for this enjoyable homage to the American spirit. A stage adaptation of classic work by political novelist John Dos Passos energized with music, movement and dance, this kaleidoscope of experiences defies simple description, and that's just the sort of nebulous region where ACT works best.
The story line consists of a series of rather disjointed vignettes containing fractured views of the American Experience 1899-1930 as lived by "ordinary" everyday citizens. Also, via a central character, J. Ward Moorhouse, we explore "the emerging power of the capitalist state" through the pursuit of the individual. There are some historical standouts, of course, and the play has a great time describing the humble beginnings and accomplishments of the Wright brothers, Isadora Duncan, Henry Ford, and even Rudolph Valentino, interspersed between the theatrical story lines of several key characters. What comes across is the ordinariness of these celebrities who had hopes and dreams like regular folks, and also serious flaws and shortcomings but they persevered, got a break or two, and were able to ride the great waves of the American Dream. The play evens the playing field so that covering family turmoil down the road seemed as significant as the latest spectacular events covered in newsreels.
Special kudos to the media designers responsible for discovering and displaying the old footage, specifically sound by Brendon Vierra and projection by James G. Champlain. From the opening shots of a young bustling New York City to images of factory output of Model T's, to the sands of Kitty Hawke, the stills reinforce the appreciation of a far-away-time and are an integral part of the play's success.
There's not a lightweight in the talented U.S.A. ensemble and in true American fashion, all get a chance to shine. What Bruce Alan Rauscher can accomplish in a glancing expression or a physical tweak is always a treat, the hilarity even more pronounced here with the cascade of characters presented. Kim-Scott Miller can bounce between being a kid and father-figure nimbly portraying each character with touching humanity. Evan Hoffmann is a natural portraying the "everyman" character, maturing effortlessly through the ages, as does Amy Quiggins with her cherub face, sparkling eyes, and cupid lips of the roaring 20s. Monalisa Arias can belt out a song like nobody's business and has a good time taking on serious, dour Ruth Buzzi (Laugh-In) expressions. Patricia Hurley who initially seems more reserved and less expressive shines as Isadora Duncan, moving gracefully with uplifted arms and gorgeous long neck draped beautifully by that damn scarf.
Covering the nation's span of history that heralded the industrial revolution, commercial flight, harnessed electricity, the automobile assembly line, seeds of segregation, and the devastating effects of world war is no easy task. U.S.A. is apparently usually performed in staged readings rather than an on its feet production– it's easy to see how the piece could spread out of control. Hats off to director Jackie Manger who captures the lightening quick pace of invention and discovery of the period, and breathes life and vitality into every scene. She certainly keeps the cast members on their toes, even down to choreographing the dance and movement steps appropriate to each decade, dusting off the obligatory waltz and the Charleston, but also adding the fox trot and box steps in between.
The marketing collage for U.S.A doesn't
do this production justice since it goes far beyond early WW soldiers
in foxholes. It's true that war and rumors of war permeate the piece,
fill the newsreels, and the devastating effects are symbolized in the
creation of the Tomb for the Unknown Soldier. Still, true to its name,
U.S.A is large enough to encompass that and more, and does so with brilliant
ingenuity, in true American form at ACT.
Son et Lumière Than Fireworks
The Fourth of July is a grand time to celebrate American history, but John Dos Passos is not a romanticist, and USA, his view of American history at the turn of the pervious century, is not a sentimental journey. Rather, it is thought-provoking, sometimes amusing, and marvelously well-done.
To my mind, ensemble shows begin with a disadvantage: there is no focus of emotional response, no one for the audience to care deeply about. Some shows, "O Calcutta" comes to mind, carry the day by distracting the audience with nudity and belly-laughs – not that there is anything wrong with that.
Most of the successful ensemble shows based on literature are musical, with familiar plot and characters as a springboard to song and humor, a poignant theme and characters we care about.
USA is a cold look at what has made America great: ambition, heartlessness, and pursuit of wealth, and if the audience is awake and reasonably intelligent, it should evoke a range of emotions and thought.
Under Jacqueline Manger’s direction, The American Century Theater’s (TACT) USA is fast-moving and synchronized with precision. The actors move swiftly and certainly through their parts, credibly changing character in an instant. While Evan Hoffman, new to TACT, performs creditably as J.Ward Morehouse and several other characters, Bruce Alan Rauscher stood out with a variety of characterizations that changed in a wink to reveal rich depth of character, flashes of humor and impishness, sycophancy and ambition, with a look, a smile, a change of voice.
Kim-Scott Miller is a bundle of energy barely holding back a winning smile that he unleashes at every opportunity. He throws himself energetically and convincingly into each of his characters,
The female roles were less distinctive, but make no mistake, this production has no slackers, and the costuming! Oh. My. Goodness!
The flappers were unflappable and gorgeous in their boas and feathers, and many of the elegant costumes look as if they are vintage ads come to life (although the publicity photos don’t show them).
USA is not for everybody. It isn’t entertainment insomuch as its purpose is not merely to entertain. It is a masterful condensation of 1,200 pages in three volumes that take a hard look at America. And although it isn’t an entertainment, it does entertain, recalling music and dance steps from nearly a hundred years ago, and it is riveting in its little known or forgotten detail.
It is a history lesson, taking the form of a series of "newsreels," in which actors reeled off a series of statements to reflect the years involved (e.g., "Harming the flag to be punished," a hundred years ago, not now); and brief, insightful and intriguing vignettes about such vibrant and significant personages as Woodrow Wilson who took us into war vowing that "the world must be made safe for democracy;" (words that echo eerily today); Eugene V. Debbs, who was jailed - pre Gitmo -- for violating the sedition act, when he spoke out against World War I; Orville and Wilbur Wright; Isadora Duncan; Henry Ford; the troubling parable of Rudolph Valentino; making excellent use of a back-projected screen which helped actors to appear to be interacting with period photographs.
In a post-performance discussion with the audience, Stephen Koch, author of The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles, made the point that "Dos Passos was a great writer, but not a great novelist."
Much of the evening is poetry, not rhyming doggerel, but the use and economy of language that burbles over the audience harmonizing with the marvelous costuming, bright choreography, and subtle lighting that immerses the audience in the brilliant – if cynical – mind of John Dos Passos.
Koch observed that the play was originally staged to allow an audience in the 50s to cogitate on how much that decade repeated the mistakes of the turn of the century. Fifty years later, we experience the same sense of déjà uh-oh today.
In her notes, director Manger asks, "Measured against history, what meaning does the life of any individual have?"
The final line of the play concludes, "But mostly, USA is the lives of its people."
The question is what choices each of us will make to create tomorrow’s USA, and that might be why we left the theater feeling vaguely distressed.
USA might not be what most of us think of as entertainment, but missing it is a mistake for anyone who fancies himself remotely contemplative.