Sam Gold has this ability to take theater as we know it and peel it back in unusual and unexpected ways enhancing the underlying material and creating something new and vibrant on top of it. I found his deconstruction of The Cradle Will Rock exhilarating.
Presented as part of the Encores! Off-Broadway summer series, The Cradle Will Rock was a concert staging of the 1937 musical about unions, fat cats, corruption, and redemption. With the statement "In the Rich Man's House the Only Place to Spit is in his Face," hovering above the actors in letters writ large, the cast, dressed all in formal wear, tell the story of a prostitute, Moll (Anika Noni Rose) who gets hauled into Night Court with the crème de la crème of Steeltown society who have been accidentally arrested by an overzealous police officer (Aiden Gemme). The town's wealthiest citizen Mr. Mister (Danny Burstein) wanted protests about unionizing quelled but all the well-to-do citizens are members of Mr. Mister's Liberty committee and were on the street to fight against the union crowds. The dim-witted police officer (here played by a child) didn't quite understand the instructions given him and grabbed up Mr. Mister's allies by mistake. The Liberty committee includes the president of the university (David Margulies), the town's minister (Matthew Saldivar), the editor of the newspaper (Judy Kuhn), two artists (Martin Moran and Henry Stram) whose patron is Mr. Mister's wife (Rose again), and the town's doctor (Eisa Davis). Each "up-standing" citizen is shown, in flashback, to have been bought by Mr. Mister's influence and each institution they represent is sullied with corruption. In contrast to the corruption is the well-meaning, hard-working prostitute who is looked down upon by these society figures and a drunk vagrant (Peter Friedman) who used to be the town's druggist. The druggist failed to act against Mr. Mister's corruption and lost not only his store but someone close to him. Fomenting rebellion and unionizing is Larry Foreman (Raúl Esparza) who eventually is hauled into court as well.
Gold plays up the satire and stark symbolism with title cards introducing the scenes, costuming, casting, and then with an incredible finale. For the finale, stagehands and other union members of the theater, openly wearing their union insignia, take away microphones, remove costumes, and strike sets. The stage is dismantled and all that is left is the cast singing.
Suddenly the potency of the message and the relevance of the piece is revealed. Gold strips away the artifice and reminds us that it is people--un-amplified and in unison--whose voices can change the status quo. But more than that, the action foregrounds so much about theater--uncovering the unseen hands of many who contribute to the whole. Gold's choice demonstrates that what we see would not exist were it not for the Foremans of the past. What could have been a creaky, period protest piece becomes under Gold's direction a continuous strand of history--linking past and present.
Gold doubled up the casting at times and that seemed to trouble some aficionados of the musical. I did not think that Gold was trying to subtlety imply parallels with the casting. In fact, I took it to mean the opposite. Although Mrs. Mister being played by the same actress as the prostitute and the guy trying to pick up the prostitute was also the University President, I did not think the pairings created links between the characters. I thought the doubling and sometimes tripling played into theme that this is a show about Everyman. The names may change but the corrupt faces remain the same. The smaller ensemble made for a more intimate group and reminded me of the incestuousness of the small town I grew up in.
The performers here also unlocked some wonderful aspects of their characters. Anika Noni Rose, as Moll, managed to be both vulnerable and angry: conveying the injustices put upon her character while a flame of revolt flickered beneath the surface. Martin Moran and Henry Stram did double duty as the children of Mr. Mister--petulant, spoiled, lacking perspective, and utterly self-absorbed--as well as the kowtowing artists who like a vaudeville act clowned around aiming to please their rich patron. Again I heard rumblings from some about why Junior Mister was made a cross-dresser. But I found it less about sex or sexuality and more about the complete freedom the rich had to flout social convention and do as they pleased without consequence. Also for the record Martin Moran, as Sister Mister, was very adept in high heels and after his strong performance here and his fantastic turn in 3 Kinds of Exile I'm mad I did not check out his one man show. Recent Obie winner Eisa Davis, as Dr. Specialist, stood out as her character is slowly but painfully led into corruption.
When Raúl Esparza burst onto the stage the stage lights seemed to burn a little brighter and hotter. If there is one man on this earth who can make handing out leaflets sexy, it is Esparza. And he does. When he says "There's a riot. I incited you," you can't help but add, quietly and to yourself, "in my pants." Because it is true. He's articulate, charismatic, and practical and you understand quickly why he is such a threat to Mr. Mister. It's smart casting and a treat for Esparza fans to see him in this role even if he is only briefly in the show.
I've seen a lot of Gold's work in the last few years (Seminar, Look Back in Anger, The Big Meal, Uncle Vanya, Picnic, Fun Home, The Flick) and the ones that impress me the most are the ones that undermine expectation and cut across the grain. The Cradle Will Rock definitely falls in that category.