Go Deeper

America: A Problem Play?

Posted June 15th, 2009

Deborah Wolfson likens directing a play to “making a sandwich, as opposed to baking a cake.” In Pittsburgh, where I’m from, we’ve got a famous hometown sandwich (Primanti’s, anyone?) that comes with the fries piled inside the bun. That, it seems, is how Wolfson serves up America: A Problem Play, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure fused with a political tract by Naomi Wolf. As adapter and director, Wolfson takes a sizzling serving of modern politics, often just nibbled at, and wedges it right in with the Elizabethan drama.

Hungry for innovative theater? America is up at the White Box at 440 Studios (440 Lafayette Street in Manhattan) as part of the Planet Connections theater festival in New York City.

“It’s still the Shakespeare story,” says Wolfson, “just pared down for a new context and new audiences. There’s already a lot of politics in the original, so we worked with that.” It turns out Shakespeare has a lot to say about power play in the 21st century, even via a tale of dukes and chaste maidens. “As we’ve worked on the script, the actors have found so many modern connections. There’s a reason Shakespeare has survived for 400 years. He speaks to people . . . he can be timeless.”

Wolfson discovered the new incarnation’s finishing touch when she stumbled on Naomi Wolf’s The End of America in the Strand, New York’s famed bookstore, atop a staff recommendations shelf. The 2007 bestseller lays out ten simple steps to dissolving a democracy, from secret prisons to press control, and argues that we’re well on our way. “As I read it . . . it just felt really natural to blend it with Measure for Measure, though I realize it might not immediately seem so from the outside.”

Duke VincentioPart of Measure for Measure‘s legacy is its status as a “problem play,” [you may have seen Pig Iron’s interpretation, Isabella, at the Live Arts Festival in 2007], an aspect that Wolfson hopes to highlight in her production. “I kept that in the title and emphasized it because so many of the issues we’re looking at today are unresolved. Of course we’ve made great strides, but it’s going to take a lot of time and effort. And as a public, we’re not always good at accepting that.” She makes it clear that there’s no such thing as an easy fix.

Political theater is a strong voice in the ever-growing clamor for governmental and public change. “Theater has a lot of power to bring attention to certain things that we don’t like about ourselves. It asks us to confront those things,” says Wolfson.

Though she’s always cared about politics “in a yay-I’m excited-to-vote kind of way,” Wolfson’s involvement has taken on new urgency in the past few years, and she hopes her audiences will get the message too. “I want them to feel more invested, and to feel more ownership in our government . . . because that’s what democracy is. Or should be.”

“This play is for anyone who watches the news and is disturbed but doesn’t take action or doesn’t know how,” she says. “But it’s also for people who just like Shakespeare and politics. Or someone who just wants to see a discussion reframed.”

National crises aside, Wolfson relishes the chance to breathe new life into classic works. “I love to reinterpret,” she says. But don’t expect a disfiguring overhaul. “I’m not smarter than Shakespeare,” adds Wolfson. “But if you approach a classic with respect, you can tell a new story with it, or even tell an old story a new way.”

Duke VincentioThis particular reinterpretation has already elicited “confusion, excitement, and a lot of raised eyebrows,” and will leave theatergoers mulling over some weighty questions. “As we look for our place in the world, we’ve got to keep a few things in mind,” says Wolfson. “People who do bad things aren’t necessarily the villains. Decisions can be bad, but that doesn’t mean we have to start sounding the war alarm.”

Wolfson’s adaptation may have found a perfect home at Planet Connections, which aims to bring social issues to the forefront through performance. The 19-day event, billed as an eco-friendly/green festival, is the first of its kind, pairing each performance and its profits with an appropriate charity. America: A Problem Play will benefit the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.

America: A Problem Play opened this weekend, and has three more performances: June 21 at 11:00 am, June 22 at 8:30 pm, and June 25 at 4:00 pm. 440 Lafayette Street, 3rd floor (between Astor Place & East 4th Street), New York, NY.

–Mara Miller

Photos by Duane Tollison, courtesy of On the Square Productions.