BABY STEP – American National Theater at the Kennedy Center

Fifty years ago a congressional charter decreed into existence “A Nation-wide … Non-Profit … Theatre Organization Dedicated to the Pleasure and Spiritual Profit of the American People.” Its mandate was “furthering production of plays of the highest type, interpreted by the best actors at a minimum cost,” for, as the charter read, “A national theatre should bring to the people throughout the country their heritage of the great drama of the past and the best of the present, which has been too frequently unavailable to them under existing conditions.”

Noble enough ideas, but the history of the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA) has been more notable for its idealism than its pragmatism. The money for the theater was originally supposed to be raised from the public, a la the Red Cross – ludicrous when you consider the lowly status of theater in American culture today, though more understandable when you consider that the charter was written not only before the regional theater movement took hold but even before television reached American homes. Still, scanning the accomplishments of this loftily titled organization is singularly depressing. Although ANTA produced a dozen seasons of plays on Broadway in the ‘50s and ‘60s (sending productions of Skin of Our Teeth and Porgy and Bess abroad), its activities by and large resembled the bake sales and bored meeting of a ladies’ bridge club.

Two years ago, longtime board member Roger Stevens announced the resurrection of the American National Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, which Stevens has run since its inception in 1961. The money for it came from the sale of the ANTA Theater in New York and matching funds from the Kennedy Center, to be controlled by a board of old-guard Broadway producers such as Stevens, Alfred deLiagre, Jean Dalrymple, Lewis Allen, and Robert Whitehead. But the artistic director, named last June, is 27-year-old Peter Sellars, Harvard whiz kid with more than 100 productions under his belt though his only administrative experience was one year running the Boston Shakespeare Company [into the ground, some might say]. Sellars’s purely nominal artistic board is a kid’s dream list, comprising Young Turks (Des McAnuff, Gary Sinise), avant-gardists (Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman), culture heroes (Orson Welles, Fred Wiseman, Onoe Kuroemon), and kindred spirits (Liviu Ciulei, Ellen Stewart). And his two associate directors are the Wooster Group’s Liz LeCompte and Timothy Mayer, a longtime cohort and mentor. Look at those names! The theater establishment, both Broadway (Harold Prince, Joe Papp) and the regionals (Gordon Davidson, Zelda Fichandler), is entirely left out. And Sellars’s first season of plays forsakes the expected O’Neill-Williams-Mamet greatest-hits constellation for The Count of Monte Cristo and an obscure Mae West comedy Come On Over, led off by Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, directed by Mayer. This American National Theater is a Theater of Outsiders.

There are many who reasonably feel that a national theater already exists in the network of not-for-profit resident theaters across the country, and it has always seemed to me that any national theater would be better off including those theaters, programming the best of the regionals as regular fare, than competing with them. Sellars apparently recognizes this – two Chicago companies, Wisdom Bridge and Steppenwolf, will bring two shows apiece to the Kennedy Center this summer. But his opening statement is characteristically brash. Mayer’s Henry IV, which opened the ANTA last week, exemplifies the Theater of Outsiders – proudly peculiar, not “fun,” not heroic. It’s certainly a good choice of play to inaugurate an American national theater, both for its place in American theater history (it was chosen not “to demonstrate that Americans can act Shakespeare,” as Mel Gussow willfully misstated in the Times, but, according to the program, to acknowledge that they have done so since colonial days) and for its coming-of-age theme. The question of leadership is pressingly important in our country and in our theater, and the drama of Prince Hal’s giving up youthful frolics for adult responsibility might well reflect our own. But Mayer’s version doesn’t sound the obvious contemporary resonances, as McAnuff’s memorable 1981 production in Central Park did; it is guided not by a triumphant, Olympic spirit but by a glum recognition of all that is sacrificed when a rebel gets taken into the fold.

However ambitious and intelligent, this reading doesn’t make for emotionally satisfying theater. As a director, Mayer likes to wallow in marginalia, dwelling more attentively on scenes that are routinely cut than on major plot points, and exploring private fixations that contradict the text as often as reveal it. He tries the audience’s patience with a perversely lackadaisical pace, and what’s actually seen onstage is a strange collision of avant-garde and popular theater, European scenic ideas and American acting.

The curtain rises Wilson-slowly on a Gordon Craig tableau of red-caped figures, the sparse furniture unpainted wood, the floor real stone, the floor-to-ceiling backdrop a gray felt wall with two pairs of windows like Keith Haring eyes. It looks severe and beautiful, like Mnouchkine’s Shakespeares. Then during the king’s first speech, Prince Hal wanders through with a Porky Pig snout on his face. The cast is a weird hodge-podge from Broadway musicals (John McMartin, Patti LuPone, Tony Azito) and Animal House (Bruce McGill, Mark Metcalf). And each scene ends in a freeze-frame center-stage that neither comments on nor crystallizes the scene before it but simply pulls an image out of the subtext and leaves it there, like a guess.

When Sellars practices this kind of eclecticism (mixing Gershwin and Gorky in Hang On to Me, for instance), he usually articulates why, either onstage or in copious program notes. Mayer’s work expresses a more cynical world-view: if you don’t get the point, it’s probably because there is no point, “a lot like life.” This kind of production is both irritating and provocative; I can’t say I enjoyed a minute of it, but everything I objected to made me examine my assumptions about the ideas in the play more than if it had been a more “classic,” textbook-official rendition. And though it’s not a visionary masterpiece like Sellars’s production of Brecht’s The Visions of Simone Machard that launched the La Jolla Playhouse, at least it’s not the safe crowd-pleaser (Ah, Wilderness! directed by Ellis Rabb?) that a less adventurous management might have chosen to open a new theater company.

There’s no point in defining such an embryonic venture on the basis of its first outing, but it will be interesting to watch how this Theater of Outsiders interacts with the mainstream of American theater. Five years down the road, will its outsider stance develop into an artistic/political point of view? Or will this American National Theater, like so many art theaters in the past, become an insular camp of elitists speaking only to themselves?

Village Voice, April 16, 1985