The Alley Cat Players seem to have a fondness for fragmentary plays that tantalize but leave the spectator unsatisfied. A couple of months ago, the culprit was Mollie Bailey's Traveling Circus, a beautifully acted piece that nonetheless only gave us a smidgen of Mollie Bailey and even less of labor organizer Mother Jones. Now Alley Cat is bringing us Jessica Litwak's Emma Goldman: Love, Anarchy, & Other Affairs; and once again this is a well-acted play that whets the appetite, then leaves you hungry. Alley Cat's to be congratulated for bringing us not only political theater, but plays that focus on politically active women. But aren't there full-length works on the subject? Or in coming months should we expect truncated bios of Carrie Nation, Margaret Sanger, Bella Abzug and Jane Fonda?
Emma Goldman is a one-woman show, set in Chicago in 1901 and featuring Alley Cat co-founder Teresa Elena Gallar in the title role. Gallar's just right for this part: there's something persuasively implacable about her, but she alternates stolidity — and achieves dimension — with some impressive bouts of romantic rhapsodizing. And the story that she tells us is right out of the Anarchist Encyclopedia. There's Goldman's childhood in Russia, the refusal to marry a man chosen by her parents, the transit to America, work in the sweatshops, and brief marriage. Then there's her radicalization, when she sees several clearly innocent anarchists condemned to death for their ostensible involvement in the famous Haymarket bombing. She becomes the protégée of anarchist Johann Most, then meets Alexander ("Sasha") Berkman, who becomes her lover and political partner. After Berkman decides to assassinate a strike-breaking industrialist, Goldman poses as a prostitute, hoping thereby to raise enough money to buy a gun. The murder plot fails, Berkman is incarcerated and Emma enters a life of intermittent imprisonment and impassioned oratory. Finally — the play is set in 1901 — policemen nab her for supposedly inciting the assassin of President McKinley. When the curtain falls, it would seem that Goldman's only future is in prison.
But that's not the case. In fact, the famed anarchist lived on till 1940, and distinguished herself in actions supporting birth control and women's rights and opposing forced conscription in America and Bolshevik communism in Russia. A biography that leaves out 40 years of its subject's life is strange enough; but this short play (under an hour) never really explains what anarchism meant to Goldman during the years that it does cover. Not given the details of Goldman's beliefs, we watch the whole drama in a state of suspension, not knowing whether to admire our heroine for her political prescience or pity her for her naiveté. This ambiguity becomes most troubling during a lyrical oration late in the play. It's very nice that Goldman believes in freedom, art and tenderness; but what's her plan, who keeps public order? On this, as on every other truly crucial point, Litwak's script is silent. You won't make converts by shrouding the faith in mystery.
And you won't win your audience by treating each scene change like an Olympic event. Director Jo Averill-Snell has actress Gallar sprinting from one part of the stage to another during the many blackouts that separate the scenes. The problem is, there are just too many blackouts, and Gallar's transits become a distracting and unnecessary part of our experience. Goldman's costume is fine, though — a long red skirt and white blouse, credited to "The Company." And the set, consisting of little more than some seating areas and side tables, is set off nicely by the tall brick backdrop at the NT Village Music Garden. I'm as enthusiastic about this space as ever: it's dignified and even stately. Plays look good here. You couldn't ask for more.
Well, you could ask for a more satisfying monologue. Emma Goldman is too brief, too selective and lacking in crucial detail. It's a pity, because Goldman is a fascinating figure, especially in her later years, when she became that unusual creature, a leftie against Soviet communism. Further, she turned against the kind of violence she once had favored, and even played a part in the Spanish Civil War. I can't imagine why Litwak leaves all this out of her drama. Seldom has an Act One so clearly needed an Act Two.
So, all right, Alley Cat. You've shown on several occasions that you can find little-known scripts.
Now prove that you can also find plays that make for a complete experience.
Birth of a Salesman. I caught up with Levi Kaplan, artistic director of the new Acorn Theatre, just a few days before the Aug. 26 opening of Salesman at the HCC-Ybor Performing Arts Hall. He told me he was stressed out: "The biggest obstacle, and really the main obstacle, is a lack of volunteers." Without the unpaid help that he'd once believed would be forthcoming, Kaplan and managing director Jami Beasley have been forced to do much of the work of preparing for an opening. That means designing and building the set, designing the lighting, handling the marketing and just about everything else short of acting.
The budget for Salesman is $16,000, says Kaplan, money which has come from a recent fundraiser, from a Bank of America grant, from board donations and other contributions — including funds from Kaplan and Beasley's own pockets. Other (not financial) help has come from American Stage in St. Petersburg and Lakeland's Pied Piper Players.
Exhausted as he may be from so much preparatory work, Kaplan's still upbeat about the choice of Salesman as his company's opener. "This is a great show for me to direct right now, for us to do right now. ... I'm proud of what we've got so far." And though the HCC Performing Arts Hall is far different from the downtown Tampa theater space that Kaplan originally envisioned, he hasn't moderated his ambitions. "I still intend to be a regional theater, and I think that we're on our way. I still intend to have our own space soon, and I still intend it to be in downtown Tampa. So it's just taking a little bit longer than we expected.
"But we're not discouraged."
Death of a Salesman runs Aug. 26-Sept. 12 at the HCC Ybor Performing Arts Hall. Call 813-728-5324.