Powers That Be

The congressional controversy over arts funding in the recent stimulus bill has a historic precedent: The Federal Theatre Project. Created as part of the WPA, the project employed out-of-work theater artists during the Great Depression. If the recent funding debate revolved around the legitimacy of art's claim to stimulus dollars, the controversy in the 1930’s more directly questioned artists' patriotism; the Federal Theatre Project was dogged by complaints of un-Americanism throughout its four-year history. Before its demise in 1939, the nationally funded program produced a number of experimental works, among them a series of Living Newspapers, episodic scripts that presented in-depth examinations of contemporary issues. Power, a living newspaper written by Arthur Arent in 1937, tackled the development of electrical power and the ensuing national debate over whether it should be privately or publicly controlled. Though still nontraditional in structure, techniques pioneered by Living Newspapers enjoy prominence today. A source of employment for out-of-work journalists who researched each project’s theme as though it were a news article, the writers' findings ultimately formed the script of each production. That playwriting technique now exists in the form of investigative theater, a term popularized by The Civilians, whose interview-based scripts address complicated cultural issues. As a theatrical genre that combines journalism and performance, living newspapers also anticipated the split screen debates of television news programs and the back-and-forth critiques of opposing political blogs; living newspapers featured scenes designed to serve as counterpoints to one another (a meeting of a farming community followed by an electric company meeting) as a means of challenging audiences and keeping them engaged. That begs the question: in an era overfilled with rapid-fire point-counterpoint arguments, can the structure of a living newspaper still prove effective? As revived by the Metropolitan Playhouse, the answer is yes.

Power’s nine-member ensemble plays a whopping total of 150 roles. Some characters exist in single vignettes, others reappear throughout the production, lending a warm familiarity to the play’s continually changing landscape, which stretches from Hoboken, NJ to the farms of Tennessee. Rafael Jordan leads the cast as an everyman frustrated by the monopoly of private electrical companies and each of the actors demonstrates cool agility as they switch from role to role. Dressed in Sidney Fortner’s period costumes, the actors take on a variety of exaggerated mannerisms and approximated accents. Their portrayals stop short of farce. Look elsewhere for goofily reductive characterizations; Power is an energetic presentation of multiple, contradictory perspectives.

As if to further emphasize the importance of electricity, lighting designer Maryvel Bergen keeps the intensity bright for most of the production and audiences can see one another across the stage. Under the direction of Mark Harborth, rather than feeling invasive, that creates a communal environment appropriate to the play’s spirit of audience engagement. Harborth, also the set designer, has newspapers plastered across the floor and splashed across the back wall, a simple but powerful reminder that the play imagines itself as a newspaper come to life.

Despite its inclusion of a wide swath of American voices, Power is as much an editorial as a news report. It’s an appropriate production both for the Metropolitan Playhouse’s seasonal focus on Work in America and also, of course, because of our country’s renewed debate over the role of government in the private sector. Moments of Power are eerily reminiscent not just of our economic crisis but of our heated conversations about how to deal with it. The parallels are powerful.

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