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March into Spring Theater
by Emily DeVoti

March 2004Andrew Wheeler in a scene from "Embedded," written and directed by Tim Robbins in The Public Theater's Newman Theater. Photo by Michal Daniel.

A year ago this month, U.S. troops invaded Iraq. This March, New York theater casts its sharp-tuned satirical eye back at the long strange trip it’s been.

Embedded, Tim Robbins’s satire about mainstream journalists "embedded" with U.S. troops as they storm Iraq, has moved to New York from its critically lauded run at Robbins’s own politically-minded L.A. theater, The Actor’s Gang. The lampoon of mainstream media and U.S. international philandering, is currently in previews at the Public Theater, and will open March 14th.

If the New York production is anything like the L.A. one—and there’s a good chance it is, seeing that the cast and crew are transferring with the show— Embedded is an exercise in broad strokes of the most colorful and scathing variety. Topically a narrative of media "embedded" with the U.S. troops as they invade the ever-so-slightly fictionalized oil-rich nation of Gomorrah, the play also spins off the theme of who is "in bed with" whom under the great roiling tapestry of American policy abroad.

Per Robbins’s script, the journalists, for instance, must submit their final copy to the military censors, in exchange for the dubious benefit of getting the "real" "first-hand" "inside" story. The results we can only imagine (hint: we’ve seen them on Fox News). Once again, America’s obsession with reality programming leads to the most spun and insidious of fictions.
Meanwhile, a chorus of war-mongering, news-spinning presidential advisors wear perfectly-pitched ghoulish masks by Earhardt Steifel. These will transfer with the show to New York as well— and with just a little squinting, the tight waxy pallor evokes Cheney’s blood-starved face far better than any live-fleshed actor could. Indeed, one of these adviser’s names is Dick, and he is in good company, surrounded as he is by fellow waxy old-boy insiders with Ivy-softened Arian names like Rum-Rum, Woof, Pearly White, Gondola, and Cove.
And in case the tone of Robbins’s writing isn’t clear, just do what you’re told and listen to the voice of authority. As one masked politico declared in the L.A. production, turning a moral truism inside out and parachuting down under it into the frighteningly familiar word-mangling territory of contemporary Washington: "TO LEAD BY EXAMPLE IS COWARDLY!"
Alice Tuan’s The Roaring Girle is a bit more mysterious, this being the play’s first production. Currently in previews, the bent of the piece is as surely satirical as Robbins’s— albeit, set in Jacobean England. Forging into the past, the play charts a buoyantly anachronistic time warp, leading us into a futuristic vision of where the Patriot Act and its assault on free speech at home just might take us.
Presented by The Foundry— the NYC-based, multi-OBIE-Award-winning company that likes to run its tongue over the sharp edge of contemporary politics— The Roaring Girle declares itself to be a very loose adaptation of the 1611 classic, made current by the fiercely theatrical Alice Tuan, who uses her art to amp up the play’s free speech/censorship issues.

The original 1611 script, by Middleton and Dekker, follows the story of the real-life character Mrs. Mary Frith—a.k.a. Moll Cutpurse— Jacobean London’s most notorious cross dresser. Her family packed the young contrarian onto a ship bound for New England, with the rest of her country’s rabble, but she jumped it and made a new beginning at home as a "roaring girle"— the job description for which apparently entails expert pickpocket, madam, embezzler, fencer, musician, sack-drinker, performer and highway(wo)man, all of which Moll satisfied with public panache.

In Tuan’s version, time distorts and bends, turning 17th century jokes into 21st century fare. To Moll’s list of crimes she adds one more, giving the dark heroine her most dangerous role yet: a "playwright," in a land where theater has been banned.
And on Theater Row, another would-be roaring girl perches and waits. She is young Palestinian-American aspiring Jazz singer Irene in playwright Betty Shamieh’s new play Roar, produced by the New Group.

A gently-paced family drama about a Palestinian-American family living in Detroit in the wake of the first Gulf War, Roar explores the immigrant family’s struggle to make their place in America. The long hours spent manning their family store threatens to ruin the marriage of Irene’s parents, a couple who long ago swallowed their own individual dreams so as to give a future to their American-born daughter. When Irene’s sexy Palestinian aunt comes for a visit, bearing not only information from Irene’s parents’ past, but also a richly seductive cultural history, the long strain of the family’s life in America is unsettled.

It is a common story, but an uncommon execution, steeped as it is in humor, a fierce and distinctly American desire for fame, and the sadly beautiful way that long-laid plans are set to ruin when old dreams refuse to die quietly. Featuring Annabella Sciorra and Sarita Choudhury, and directed by Marion McClinton, Roar will certainly add to the more overtly political satires to bring in March theater… like a lion.Embedded, written and directed by Tim Robbins
Joseph Papp Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street

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