Anarchist 'Emma' rings with social harmony

November 12, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

From its evocative look and sound to the cast's tight ensemble work, Mother Lode Theatre Company's production of "Emma" -- a play about anarchist Emma Goldman -- is stirring, both emotionally and politically.

The play traces three decades of Goldman's life, roughly from the time she left her parents' Rochester, N.Y., home to the 1917 draft-dodging speech that led to her deportation to Russia. Along the way, scenes depict the development of her political philosophy as well as her relationships with family, friends and lovers.

The second act is relatively undramatic, consisting primarily of Goldman's speeches on subjects ranging from feminism and Ibsen to prison conditions. However, the theatrical integrity of Mother Lode's production -- the company's first as part of the Theatre Project's local residency program -- is strong enough to compensate for the didacticism of the script by historian Howard Zinn.

"Emma" begins with Goldman giving a speech explaining that anarchism means social harmony, not disorder. But the scene also establishes the stunning look of the production, directed by Joe Brady, with lighting by Jay Herzog and sound by Max Garner. Suzannah Carlson, in the title role, stands spotlighted on a rear platform with an audience of bystanders silhouetted in front.

On either side are piles of luggage -- constant reminders of Goldman's immigrant background and the impermanence of her American citizenship. In front of each of these is a row of chairs where actors sit when not directly involved in a scene. The seated actors also serve as the audience for Goldman's speeches.

It's an odd device since the two rows of listeners stare across the stage at each other, instead of at the speaker, but it's also an interesting departure from the convention of scattering actors in the theater audience, and thanks to the costume designs by Ted Frankenhauser and Terri Pruitt, it reinforces the play's period.

The creative team also includes choreographer Karen Kohn Bradley, whose contribution is as lovely and appropriate as it is unexpected. Bradley has choreographed duets Goldman dances with whomever is her lover at the time. For example, when Goldman and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman (John Hansen) fall in love, they initially dance holding a handkerchief between them, in keeping with the tradition of their shared Old World Jewish heritage.

Carlson does an able job as Goldman, although her magnetism as an orator and her warmth as a friend and lover aren't entirely convincing. Still, she effectively conveys Goldman's admiration

for Hansen's fervent Berkman. Her subsequent infatuation for Chicago doctor Ben Reitman is less apparent due to a lack of chemistry between her and David Calkins' Reitman.

Most of the supporting cast members demonstrate impressive skills in multiple roles. Standouts include Bethany Hoffman, Tom Dougherty, Valerie Long, Joan Weber, and especially Brian Chetelat, who shines in roles ranging from Emma's domineering father to Henry Clay Frick, whom Berkman attempted to assassinate.

Once branded the most dangerous woman in America by the FBI, and later described by the Nation magazine as one of the "12 greatest living women," Goldman is recognized in mass culture today largely because of Maureen Stapleton's Oscar-winning portrayal in the movie "Reds." Historian/playwright Zinn, who attended a reception here in September, admitted Goldman is generally overlooked, even by history texts.

"Emma" is his earnest attempt to help remedy that, and Mother Lode's production does it proud.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Emma"

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 3 p.m. Nov. 13; 7 p.m. Nov. 20 (no performance on Thanksgiving); through Nov. 20

Tickets: $14

Call: (410) 752-8558

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