Friday, October 23, 2009

review of *Paradise Lost*

by Clifford Odets, premiered in 1935
Oct. 22 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland

Seventy-seven years after the action in Clifford Odets' play opens, and America's in the same pickle: Great Depression then, Great Recession now. Foreclosures and job loss, homelessness, anger at the System, political radicalism, self-blame, money worries, feuding business partners -- a lot of Odets' material resonates right now in ways that it wouldn't have even just two years ago.
So it's a privilege to witness this play at this juncture of our history.
Odets traces the decline of a middle-class Brooklyn family in the middle of the Depression, from flush times to being evicted. Among his plays, it was his favorite -- though even he admitted it was too crowded with characters, too episodic.

[photo: Clifford Odets, from]

Director Libby Appel's production pays tribute to its Group Theater origins by studding the 22 roles with plenty of OSF veterans, even in the small parts. No star turns here. (Then again, you won't often see a play this old and large done by professional theaters very often.)
The family loses its home; each of the three adult children has his or her dreams shattered (or worse); the optimistic best friend has a daughter who marries the favorite son, only to turn out self-centered and resentful; the business partner is an angry, corrupt old toad. Six years after the Crash, it all comes crashing down. So Paradise is indeed Lost, along with the American Dream.
The odd thing was that, as Mr. Pike the pessimist and Leo Gordon the optimist spouted their scenarios of gloom and hope, you didn't get the sense of prophesies fulfilled so much as the cyclical nature of history. (Maybe Hegel, or the pendulum theory of history, is vindicated most here.)
Michael J. Hume (Mr. Antrobus, Stephano, and Macbeth in 18 years here, among many other roles) doesn't quite earn the heart-ringing optimism of his big final speech** -- and the final scene, with its echoes of the end of The Cherry Orchard, wasn't quite as moving as it hoped to be. (But then Truth is hard to face: After a couple of hits with Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing!, Odets didn't hit it over the fences with this one; critics worked hard to dissociate this particular middle-class family from what was happened to so many others in the late '30s.)
That's partly because the script is so scattered (seemingly dozens of people trooping in and out of this brownstone residence, barely knocking at the front door as they scurried in to tell their tales).
But it also contains cumulative surprises: A lot is happening, a sense of lives glimpsed in snippets, plenty of activity and not just people lying around bemoaning their fate. Paradise Lost is still in my head the morning after, and while I haven't liked some of Libby Appel's choices (King Lear, The Cherry Orchard), I thought this was the best-directed of her efforts that I have seen.
David DeSantos as Ben: took risks with over-the-top zoot-suit effusiveness in the first act, but turned those same mannerisms into cynical self-loathing by the second act. (A three-hour play with two intermissons and a huge cast -- just like in the old days!) DeSantos was almost acting in his own play, in a style unlike anybody else onstage (and, let's face it, this has something to do with OSF's emphasis on colorblind casting: the Hispanic Jewish kid who speaks in Brooklynese) -- BUT, DeSantos, like Marilyn Stacey (who I saw the night before in Becky's New Car at Artists Rep) commands attention, has magnetism. You start daydreaming: what else I'd like to see these actors in.
Mr. Pike grumbles about his two sons, both killed in the Great War, and then about how capitalism breeds wars -- and you're struck by how Odets and his actors could only see WW2 coming, and didn't know about Korea, Vietnam, two Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, and all the rest. And now we're back in an economic pit, clawing to get out.
Hume's character, Leo Gordon, has such compassion: Does it translate into my actual life, with me sitting in my expensive theater seat, while others are losing their jobs? Resolved: to do more to help the poor, even as I continue to experience the kind of art that makes me want to live a better life. Charity and art, both pretty basic; don't neglect either, don't feel guilt, just try to do better in both arenas.
Paradise Lost doesn't foretell the end of capitalism any more than today's troubles mean we're all going to die next Tuesday. With hindsight, both extremes of outlook seem exaggerated: Our lives are of a mingled yarn, both good and ill together.

I deeply admire Richard Elmore as an actor (he was entrancing as the skeptical art history prof in Pentecost back in '97), but he has settled into the same old mannerisms in role after role: hand claps, planting one foot and then shifting the other slightly, nose-brushes to indicate sarcastic intent, the whiny-to-roaring voice, the primping gestures that call attention to himself rather than to his character.

Bobo met Richard Howard at intermission (from my program, I see that in 22 years here, he has played Romeo, Jaques, Master Ford, Gayev, Angelo, Richard II, Pericles and Hamlet, among many other roles). So I compliment him on the fifth-act soliloquy, Richard in prison, "back in '97" (I'd taken a bunch of Whitworth students), and immediately he corrected me: "that was in '95, actually." Gracious and kind about it, but: Do you REALLY think actors don't treasure their performances? They are woven into the fabric of who they are, what their lives mean.

** "I tell you, the whole world is for men to possess. Heartbreak and terror are not the heritage of mankind! The world is beautiful. No fruit tree wears a lock and key. Men will sing at their work, men will love. Oh, darling, the world is in its morning ... and no man fights alone!"

See a couple of (overly large) photos of the Group Theater at
and a picture from the OSF production at
[from, a Portland arts blog: from left, Mark Murphey as Mr. Pike (the embittered, anti-capitalist furnace repairman), Michael J. Hume as Leo Gordon (the patriarch, who co-owns a handbag manufacturing business), and Richard Elmore as Gus Michaels (the motorcycle-driving best friend whose daughter Libby marries the Gordon's Olympic-athlete-and-swaggering-but-disappointing son Ben)

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At November 01, 2009 12:39 PM , Anonymous Maria C. said...

I really appreciated seeing this play mostly for the gorgeous set and lighting and the lovely script but thought there was an awful lot of acting going on onstage. I wasn't sure whether to view it as a period piece and cut the actors (and director) some slack or not.


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