The past theater season ended with me seeing a number of plays who overall worth for the better.and quality I questioned. I began to wonder if the theater scene had passed me by, and whether I was destined to enjoy the performances I saw less and less. I am happy to report, however, that my theater experiences have taken a turn for the better.
Last Saturday, I went with my entire family to see “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” at Alexandria’s Metro Stage. The music of Jacques Brel has long been a favorite of mine, since I first saw this show (original version) in Syracuse ten or more years ago, and then a few years later saw daughter Michelle perform so well in an ensemble version at George Washington University.
“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well……..” was first performed on Broadway in 1968, was filmed in 1975, performed from time to time thereafter, and revised for an off-Broadway production in 2006, and performed several times since then. The Metro Stage version is the 2006 revision; whether this is an advance over the original production is, to me, questionable, as several of Brel’s better songs (including Marathon and Mathilde) were omitted.
But it is still a great show, because all of Brel’s music is so extraordinary. It is not complicated music; it is not diverse music. But it is intoxicating music, with a strong and consistent beat, some times 4/4 and perhaps more often 3/4, powerful melodic lines and perhaps most important, powerful lyrics written by Brel as the lynchpin for his music, written well in advance of the music. And how does music become intoxicating? Because of constant repetition of melodic and rhythmic lines, over and over again. It is not surprising that Brel wrote about carousels and marathons; his music goes around and around and around again.
And the lyrics? The lyrics are the lyrics of tragedy. And not only tragedy, but the relationship between hope and ambition and expectation, and the inevitable tragedies than frustrate them. Age, war, failures of relationships, over and over, but with all (and perhaps this is the greatest tragedy) of the frustrations, hope and ambition and expectation continue to live.
The four person cast is excellent, the small musical combo providing background and direction equally good. No one will be disappointed by this show and, if you do not already know Brel, this is an opportunity you should not miss.
Similarly, last night we went to the Studio Theatre to see a staged version of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel “The Invisible Man”. I don’t think I have ever read the book (I thought I had until I watched the play the play and realized I was confusing “The Invisible Man” with Richard Wright’s “Native Son”). But now I almost feel like I have.
Teagle Bougere plays the unnamed protagonist whose life is followed in the play. He starts as a young black man in the South, who is taken advantage of by the local white gentry, but who gets a scholarship to the local black college, starts out as a star student, winds up on the outs with the administration through no real fault of himself, travels to New York to find summer employment, is unable to return to college and stays, is discovered to be a master orator, winds up working as the Harlem representative of a mysterious organization which fosters “brotherhood” (but was probably based on the Communist party), and then finds out that things fall apart. He is “invisible” because no one looks at him as an individual, as a human being, but rather as an example of his race. He starts out (sort of like a Jacques Brel song, I guess) with confidence, ambition, and the belief (as a follower ofBooker T. Washington) that blacks should work hard, not make trouble, get along with everyone, and eventually success and respect will follow. He learns it is not that easy, particularly when he determines that the “brotherhood” has just been using him, and he comes face to face with black nationalists in Harlem.
This is a long play – almost three hours with two intermissions, but don’t let that deter you. Time passes quickly. And this is due not only to the actors, all of whom were strong, but to Oren Jacoby, who adapted the book for the stage, and to director Christopher McElroen. Jacoby wrote no new words for his play, everything comes directly from Ellison’s book. The format is that the invisible man is narrating to the audience his experiences, and with each new experience, the other actors appear on the set and we move from first person narration to watching the action. But each “scene” (the set never changes, except that props and furniture are moved around) is short, and then following the next narrative moment, the next scene commences. The one set is more than credible as a school, as a basement apartment, as a Harlem street corner, as a Harlem apartment, as an upscale apartment, as a large meeting hall and more.
This play brings up many important issues, timeless although set during the depression years, and I encourage you to go see it.