Culture 2 Go

Playwright Marx his words
The Cradle Will Rock
Through July 4 at Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.

The anger felt by many Americans these days is largely directed at the wrong targets, and often the irate arguments against perceived enemies are murky and illogical. Seventy-five years ago, the foes of the country's working and middle classes were easier to identify. For the wage earners struggling to pull themselves out of the economic misery of the Great Depression, the industrialists and their bought-off minions — pliable newspaper publishers, the vacillating clergy, weak-kneed judges, brutal police, etc. — were recognizable villains that conspired to keep them disorganized, disenfranchised and discontented.

It was in this environment of clear outlines of good versus evil that Marc Blitzstein's 1936 agitprop musical, The Cradle Will Rock, found its naissance and its audience. Bolstered by the ham-fisted actions of government bureaucrats to shut down the premiere, legendary producers Orson Welles and John Houseman staged the play in daring defiance of administration fiat. Thus were they able to reinforce its message of proletarian solidarity in the face of unfair restrictions on free speech and assembly.

Back in the 1930s, the controversy surrounding Cradle's possible closing may have been more theatrically satisfying than the play itself. The musical remains a mélange of scenes and songs presented in the Brechtian style, showcasing an unholy alliance of society's corrupt upper-crust working against the idealistic aspirations of a union organizer and his brave compatriots. But the world having changed so radically since Cradle's debut. In those days, for instance, nativist and parochial diatribes tinged with racism were tools employed by the plutocrats against the demonstrating masses; today many demonstrators voice those screeds.

That being said, the Mad Cow Theatre's production of The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Alan Bruun, does provide a measure of satisfaction, if not on thematic grounds, then on artistic ones. The performers in the large cast sing well and act out Blitzstein's largely two-dimensional characters with appropriate gusto. Robin Jensen's musical accompaniment is solid, and while Blitzstein's score, radical for its day, is not exactly hummable, his lyrics are witty and easily digested. The Cradle Will Rock is a play of its time, rooted in a societal struggle that no longer seems relevant. That's a pity because many of that era's enemies still exist today. We just don't see things as clearly.

— Al Krulick

A room of their own
The Green Room With Paul Provenza
10:30 p.m. Thursday

One stand-up comic in front of a room is an act. Two or more, especially with cameras rolling, is a party — or at least an entertaining bitch session. That's what Paul Provenza has in mind with The Green Room, a good-time TV show that features the host leading three or four comics at a time through a freewheeling half-hour of jokes, war stories and observations about the state of the world.

Provenza is best known for the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, which featured dozens of comics telling their version of the same ribald joke. Here, surrounded by a small audience, he serves as the instigator-in-chief. In one installment, Robert Klein talks about sailing with Rodney Dangerfield, and Jonathan Winters recalls what happened when he told the major in charge of his World War II unit that he was "a very attractive man." In another, Penn Jillette tells a joke about Siamese twins and Julio Iglesias that ends with an hysterical punch line, and Martin Mull picks up a guitar to demonstrate the art of the subtle insult.

Each show contains plenty of one-liners. Andy Kindler observes that Austin "is a lovely town surrounded by Texas." Provenza imitates comedian Gilbert Gottfried's voice on a GPS system: "Make a left. A left." Winters reveals that he once asked Richard Burton what Elizabeth Taylor was like, and Burton's response was, "She was quite furry."

Next to getting a laugh, there's nothing comics like better than griping. So prepare to be treated to stories about crappy gigs, terrible audiences and self-loathing. Provenza warns at the beginning of each episode, "If you've ever been offended by anything, don't come in," and he means it. A sample of his jokes: "After River Phoenix died, Jim Belushi called up Joaquin Phoenix and said, ‘Listen, it's not all bad.'" And "Do I believe Mackenzie Phillips? I would have done her if I were her dad."

Provenza's not the only one working on the edge. Talking about slavery, Bobby Slayton says to Paul Mooney, who is black, "We also let you go. I never heard ‘thank you.'" Rick Overton does an impression of the man who found David Carradine hanging in a Bangkok hotel. Roseanne Barr defends a picture she took where she was dressed as Hitler putting some "gingerbread Jews" in the oven.

As comic Patrice O'Neal observes in the second episode: "The idea of comedy is there should be 50 people laughing and 50 people horrified."

— Marc D. Allan

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