Sometimes you go looking for one story and you find another. I went to Boston for the weekend to see Doonesbury and to write about the making of the musical, but I found myself thinking and learning more about why theater works at all.

I had high hopes for Doonesbury because it was written by Garry Trudeau, who created the sharp, funny, political comic strip, and Elizabeth Swados, a composer I admire. But I was disappointed in the show, which seemed amusing but tame. meanwhile, I saw two exciting and ambitious productions in Boston -- Pericles directed by Peter Sellars at the Boston Shakespeare Company, and Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, by a group called TheaterWorks -- that answered all my questions about what was wrong with Doonesbury. To put it simply, they had a reason to exist as works of art, and Doonesbury did not.

I liked Doonesbury when I first saw it, but I first saw it in a run-through without sets and costumes in one of Michael Bennett’s studios, and it’s easy to like something under those circumstances. It’s practically a command performance. The one row of folding chairs was taken up by the director Jacques Levy, Trudeau, and Swados on either side of choreographer Margo Sappington, the producer Jim Walsh, two press agents, and me. Crewpeople scurried around with clipboards, scripts, and stopwatches, the understudies lounged in a  group near the small rehearsal orchestra, and the cast performed full out just inches from my nose.

  The play takes place on graduation weekend for the members of the Walden Commune. Joanie Caucus, runaway-housewife-turned- feminist-lawyer, shows up with her new baby. Joanie’s abandoned and now college-age daughter J.J. comes to visit Mike (Doonesbury himself, for the non-initiates), who plans to ask her to marry him. Zonker’s uncle Duke, the cocaine-cowboy based on Hunter Thompson, beats a possession rap by promising to establish a drug rehabilitation program, so he buys Walden Commune and tries to turn it into condos. It’s all quite sit-commy but captures a moment in the lives of characters who are both comic types and recognizable from life.

I was most taken with the cast, a rue ensemble of little-known but wonderful New York actors. Some were perfect embodiments of the cartoon characters, including Keith Szarabajka as the ever-football- helmeted B.D., Barbara Andres as Joanie, Albert Macklin (briefly terrific in the movie Streamers) as die-hard hippie Zonker, and that comic dynamo Mark Linn-Baker as radio talk-show host Mark, who, it appeared, would have the distinction of performing the first break-dancing on a Broadway stage. Ralph Bruneau looked not much like the cartoon Doonesbury but very much like Garry Trudeau, tall with dark curly hair and a broad behind. And a couple of performers seemed starbound – Lauren Tom was hilariously deadpan as Honey, Duke’s bespectacled Chinese sidekick-worshiper, and Laura Dean had what seemed a sure-fire show-stopper as B.D.’s cheerleader girlfriend Boopsy in the blatantly Fame-meets-Flashdance anthem “I Can Have It All.”

During the break someone pointed out approvingly, “The music is very different for Liz,” meaning there were tunes. But this seemed to me a misunderstanding of two things – Swados’s talent and the purpose of theater music. People have often complained that Swados doesn’t write melodies, and the same thing has been said of Stephen Sondheim through the years (despite the fact that hundreds of insanely devoted musical buffs can sing you every note he ever wrote). The point is that if you can hum a song after one hearing it’s probably because the song reminds you of another tune you already know, whereas a lot of very good and original music requires more than one listening to sink in. The highest test of theater music should not be whether it sends you out the door with an inane melody drilled into your head but whether it serves the dramatic moment. And I’ve always admired most the Swados songs that have the beauty and evanescence of powerful theatrical moments – “Are You with Me?” from Nightclub Cantata, “Sometimes” from Runaways, “Pretty and Green” from Dispatches, “What There Is” from Alice in Concert.

Doonesbury has a strong and tuneful score, but it’s not terribly original. It’s a pastiche, which is not new for Swados, either – she has written pseudo-doowop, pseudo-country, pseudo-reggae, and pseudo-punk songs for the shows I just mentioned. The songs in Doonesbury are better but still derivative, lacking in style. Swados does have a definite neoprimitive style based on ethnic musics, but it’s been mercilessly made fun of in the press as so much bird-calling, and I can understand her attraction to Doonesbury as an opportunity to prove that she can write contemporary Broadway show tunes. But in these matters, I always keep in mind the advice of Quentin Crisp: “Start with your identity, which is a combination of your assets and what your friends mean when they discuss ‘the trouble with you,’ polish that, and you have style.”

Trudeau himself did the lyrics for Swados’s songs, and they’re serviceable but not great. The book, however, has real scenes and is genuinely funny. One of the strengths of the comic strip was always its pungent commentary on topical issues, however fleeting – Skylab, Billie Jean King, President Ford. So I was impressed at the run-through when Trudeau handed the actors a brand-new scene for one of the cartoon-strip sequences designed to cover set changes. Ronald Reagan wonders aloud what James Watt has against the environmentalists, and an aide reports that as a child Watt had been attacked by a flock of starlings in a national park: “Ever since then, he’s felt insecure about his place in the food chain.”

When I finally saw the show on its feet at the Wilbur in Boston , that joke was gone (Watt had resigned), but so was much else that was fresh about the show, including Mark Linn-Baker’s break-dancing. I started to get the sense that something was wrong when I tried setting up interviews. Trudeau, who presumably had the most to say, wasn’t talking, and Swados – an old friend of Trudeau’s and originally supposed to write, score, and direct Doonesbury – kept ducking me; she was reportedly in New York but when I bumped into her backstage she said to call her, and she never returned my calls to her hotel and her apartment in New York. That left Jacques Levy, whom the producer had hired to direct the workshop because Levy had been used to the workshop method from his days with the Open Theater, but the poor man had nothing but clichés to share about the show, the strip, his colleagues, and his profession.

Then I saw the show and realized why everyone was so depressed. Much as I wanted to like it, it seemed dumb and lackluster. Part of the problem was unmistakably Levy’s direction – even the certified big numbers, such as “I Can Have It All,” Mike’s solo “Just One Night,” and a sort of country-and-western duet between Honey and Boopsy called “A Complicated Man,” barely made it across the footlights. But the deeper problem was the show’s lack of real substance. Despite a couple of jabs at Reagan, the show had no political bite. Did Trudeau tame it down because a Broadway musical can’t accommodate political comment, or was the real truth that Doonesbury was never really radical but only seemed so compared to other daily newspaper comics? Anyway, the show came off like Annie for adults or, as one Boston critic called it, “the thinking man’s Grease.” I’d still prefer it any day over the witless Little Shop of Horrors, and maybe it will be, as someone suggested, this year’s Hair to La Cage aux Folles1776. But I happened to see The Big Chill in Boston , and unintentionally it seemed a better cartoon about the same generation (you know, discuss how ex-revolutionaries feel guilty about making money in four panels or less).


Pericles is something of a cartoon, too – something of a joke, really, one of the most puzzling, uneven, and rarely performed texts in Shakespeare’s canon. Still, there are many good reasons one might imagine for Peter Sellars’s wanting to direct it. Because it is rarely seen, an ambitious young director has few rival productions to contend with. Because the text is thought corrupt, a flamboyant director cannot be accused of desecrating a masterpiece. In fact, the play, with its uncharacteristic sprawl through time and space and its odd passages of dreams, supernatural events, and choral imprecations, seems like a perfect playground for a rambunctious postmodern stage director like Sellars. (I must admit that reading the speculation about Pericles’ authorship in F. D. Hoeniger’s definitive edition I thought of the communal handiwork that went into making the musical My One and Only, Sellars’s last big Boston adventure.) Finally, a conceptualist as penetrating yet literal-minded as Sellars would notice that the play contains three resurrections, and he has just the sort of rascally arrogance that would celebrate his inauguration as artistic director of a nine-year-old theater company with a play about resurrection.

The miracle is that Sellars has, with a single production, transformed the Boston Shakespeare Company from a post-collegiate amateur company that no one took seriously into a vital art theater for the Boston community. Taking over this theater was a calculated gamble – why should anyone else in the world care what goes on at the Boston Shakespeare Company? Nevertheless, his bold work for the American Repertory Theater (The Inspector General, Orlando), the Chicago Lyric Opera (The Mikado), and the La Jolla Playhouse (Brecht’s The Visions of Simone Machard) has already established him as one of the handful of American stage directors who automatically commands attention, in no small part because it is always inspiring to watch a talented young artist tackle and reinvigorate a classical art form.

Sellars’ productions always burst with conceptual ideas that in a lesser director’s hands would be called gimmicks, and Pericles was no exception. Take the choice of music: Debussy on tape, two Beethoven sonatas played live at an onstage baby grand, and at key points in the play, the Delta-based blues of Elmore James (“Stormy Monday” during a storm at sea, “Shake Your Moneymaker” introducing the brothel scene, etc.). The blues tunes also related to the casting of black actors in two major roles. Ben Halley Jr. played Pericles with breathtaking majesty, and to speak the singsongy choral interludes of John Gower, the poet who supposedly returns from the grave to tell this story, Sellars hired the eccentric street performer and radio personality Brother Blue – a conceptual coup but a practical mistake, because his jivey rapping garbled crucial exposition.

Besides these sweeping choices, Sellars applied his inventiveness to individual scenes with equal verve. In the first scene, where Pericles divines the secret incest between Antiochus and his daughter, the pair appeared as pornographic images – he in a leather s&m harness, she in white bra and panties like an underwear ad. This scene, taken with the brothel scene in which Pericles’s beloved daughter Marina faced three denizens wearing animal masks, sounded a theme of degraded sexuality and man’s sick need to destroy beauty. Marina was played by the only performer other than Halley and Brother Blue not double-cast and who never appeared masked, which emphasized her singularity. Time after time she talked her way out of being killed or defiled with a voluble eloquence that could only be explained in so young and unschooled a girl by acknowledging that goodness has its own power that can prevail over the violent and sexual powers in man and nature.

Sellars presented the quest for goodness as central to Pericles, and in his typically arcane and articulate program notes he discussed the play as Shakespeare’s attempt to address – after writing Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth – the possibility of a happy ending. The director figured that the Bard found his inspiration in Christian mystery plays and the model of death-and-resurrection, so throughout his production Sellars stressed the Christliness of Pericles (not difficult given Ben Halley’s evangelical performing style), not as a religious martyr but as a man who tries to do good, seems to lose everything, and is eventually rewarded for his suffering.

If the entire show resided on this lofty plane, it would surely have gotten dull. Luckily, Sellars has a low side to indulge as well. The Tempest-like scene in which Pericles washes ashore at Pentapolis was treated as pure slapstick; the fishermen who rescued him were regular “hosers” in flannel shirts and red noses. The knights’ competititon for the hand of the princess Thaisa was more buffoonery, and the dance celebrating her union with Pericles was a riot – their courtly minuet set off rock and roll gyrations among the guests that looked like the antler dance from Saturday Night Live, and eventually Pericles and Thaisa got into a down-and-dirty bump themselves. While some of these scenes were staged with the visual splendor of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, some were simply cheap thrills, like the storm at sea lit by a single lamp swinging wildly across the stage, casting huge, vertiginous shadows. Although Pericles was produced at the Jean Cocteau Rep two seasons ago in a well-reviewed Genet-like production, it’s hard to imagine anyone in New York giving Peter Sellars the resources to do this kind of freewheeling, uncut three-and-a-half-hour production. His gamble has paid off.

Sellars’s taking over the Boston Shakespeare Company is only the latest step in the revitalization of theater in Boston , which 10 years ago was little more than a moribund tryout town. Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theater brought professional not-for-profit theater to Boston – Cambridge, actually, where it thrives; its last season, at the height of which I saw Andrei Belgrader’s production of Waiting for Godot,  Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, and Andrei Serban’s Three Sisters in one weekend, was a model of intelligent repertory. The Huntington Theater Company is a new operation doing quality productions of middle-serious plays from The Dining Room to Plenty. This high-profile activity has boosted the morale of the always-struggling local companies, of which TheaterWorks is the best, distinguished by its excellent actors, its fine playwright-in-residence Jon Lipsky, and its literary sensibility.

Coming Through Slaughter was the company’s second theatrical encounter with Canadian poet Michael Ondaatje (Reality Theater, a precursor of TheaterWorks, several years ago adapted The Collected Works of Billy the Kid). Ondaatje’s blend of documentary, legend, and poetic invention would seem perilously difficult to stage, but director Tim McDonough did a superb job, working from the author’s own adaptation previously staged in Toronto .

Coming Through Slaughter is an imagined biography of turn-of-the- century jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden, about whom few facts are known, all of them rather exotic: he became known for leading parades in New Orleans, conducted a tempestuous love life, “went berserk” and burst a blood vessel in his neck playing in a parade, and at the age of 31 was committed to a mental hospital until he died 24 years later. Ondaatje found in Bolden’s story a dark struggle for artistic creation born of racial, spiritual, erotic, and psychic tensions with which he clearly identified. Embellishing the few facts, he compiled a portrait in poetic vignettes of a man caught between a life seeking order and an art seeking chaos.

What was extraordinary was the delicacy and indirection with which McDonough, within an apparent absence of structure, was able to interweave the roots of art and madness, the domestic lives of turn-of-the-century New Orleans blacks, and the birth of jazz in a comprehensible and tantalizing fashion. To Ondaatje, Bolden symbolized the human struggle between being good and bad, God and the devil, that gets intensified in the artist’s psyche. And his metaphor for this struggle – “making and destroying, same source, same surgery” – was music. “Governed by fears of certainty,” Bolden had a need to create perishable music, “coarse and immediate…dated in half an hour,” that coincided with a drive for self-obliteration. Together they drove him to madness – or what’s worse for a musician, to silence.

McDonough transformed this metaphor into theater largely by concentrating on one of Ondaatje’s inventions, Bolden’s friendship with Bellocq, the famed photographer of Storyville prostitutes. The only set consisted of two adjoining screens used for projections of Bellocq’s photos and the single existing picture of Bolden with his band, as well as scenes played by the actors as shadow plays. The juxtaposition of light and shadow, photoreality and stage reality reinforced the evanescence of theater, an art that is made and destroyed in the same minute, and I can only guess that it was this medium-is-the- message subtext that made the piece so entrancing in the absence of any conventional narrative or action. The exquisite language, which restlessly sought to capture the changing colors of a pounding heart and a racing mind, and the accomplished performances by an all-black cast reminded me of Ntozake Shange’s pieces. And Coming Through Slaughter seemed to me to express many of the thoughts about art and life (including feminist ideas of photography as violence) that BAM’s The Photographer got lost in.

At the end of my weekend in Boston , I couldn’t help thinking that the success of Pericles and Coming Through Slaughter, and my enjoyment of them, compared to Doonesbury, had everything to do with their markers’ commitment to theater as art. That honesty speaks to the community they play for, who will return to the theater again and again. On the other hand, I felt sorry for serious artists driven to spending a year of their time and $2 million of someone else’s money sweating and straining, clipping and compromising their artistry to produce a commodity for Broadway that has very little to say. After enduring an indifferent out-of-town trout, they have to drag their baby into the hostile, faithless marketplace, which just as soon smother it in the crib.

Village Voice, November 22, 1983