Atlanta Classical Theatre's I Am a Camera the Friday before the presidential election, but like a ticking time bomb, the production revealed its greatest political relevance only after the returns came in. The play's pressing themes emerged from the production's flaws as much as the script's richness.
Playing through Nov. 13, I Am a Camera depicts the relationship between struggling writer and English teacher Christopher Isherwood (Andrew Porter) and "decadent" actress/singer Sally Bowles (Detra Hicks) in the increasingly Nazi-controlled Berlin of the 1930s. If that sounds familiar, it should: I Am a Camera recounts the same story as Cabaret, only without the cabaret. In 1952, John Van Druten wrote I Am a Camera, a stage adaptation of Isherwood's autobiographical stories "Sally Bowles" and "Goodbye to Berlin," which received much different musical treatments on stage and screen as Cabaret.
You can't help but recall songs like "Mein Herr," "Money" or the Hitler youth anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" as you hear Sally recount her gold-digging exploits. But without the musical numbers, I Am a Camera focuses less on the rising anti-Semitic sentiment and zeroes in on poor, hedonistic young people who scarcely notice Germany's worsening politics. Intellectual bohemians fiddle while Berlin burns.
Before the election, I Am a Camera was noteworthy primarily for Hicks' vivid performance as Sally, a deluded, decadent flapper. But the 2004 vote gave the production a fresh significance. I Am a Camera concludes with artists and intellectuals abandoning an increasingly repressive and intolerant nation. And after the election, almost without exception, my gay friends and theater contacts made jokes about moving to a blue state -- or Canada.
More than George W. Bush's re-election, the turnout's cultural implications bode ill for the theater. Georgia and 11 other states passed bans on gay marriage, while voters told pollsters that "moral values" concerned them more than issues like the economy or terrorism. An emboldened, culturally conservative, anti-homosexual atmosphere cannot be good for the arts, and gay plays may be among the first to draw fire.
There's precedent to be paranoid. Only 10 years ago, the Cobb County Commission voted unanimously to cut arts funding after criticizing the gay themes of Theater in the Square's Lips Together, Teeth Apart. The Marietta playhouse weathered the cuts, but it's worth pointing out that Lips Together does not, in fact, have any gay characters -- the show depicts two straight couples spending the Fourth of July at a Fire Island retreat. Such distinctions apparently don't matter in a cultural war.
If the artistic climate turns chilly, keep an eye next spring on Theatre in the Square's Take Me Out, a comedy about a gay baseball player, and Onstage Atlanta's Corpus Christi, a drama about small-town religious and homosexual oppression by Lips Together, Teeth Apart playwright Terrence McNally. Both promise to be the most likely lightning rods for controversy.
Atlanta Classical Theatre's I Am a Camera might anticipate productions to come. The 52-year-old script maintains a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude toward sexuality, although it strongly implies that the Isherwood character prefers men. Yet Atlanta Classical Theatre's production does nothing to bring out this tension.
Shows like I Am a Camera, which keep sexual politics closeted and encoded rather than out in the open, may become more prevalent. Gay-themed plays will never go away, but in economically tight, risk-averse times, theater will face more pressures to censor themselves.
Of course, a more conservative environment might create its own new opportunities: Imagine shows with names like What Would Jesus Do? The Musical or Our Supreme Leader and His Glorious Victory over the Stem-Cell Research Supporters. Or perhaps the 2004 election marks the furthest swing in the political pendulum before it moves back in the favor of the arts.
But at the moment, no one in the theater is singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."
More bad omens
- Some pieces of bad news come with silver linings. Director Kenny Leon faces delays in his Broadway production of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean (with previews scheduled to begin Nov. 16 at the Walter Kerr Theatre). But they won't interfere with Leon's next shows in Atlanta, True Colors' The Wiz in December and Jewish Theatre of the South's Brass Birds Don't Sing in January.
- 7 Stages has canceled its spring production of Caryl Churchill's A Number, an intriguing drama about cloning, replacing it with David Mamet's Boston Marriage, an all-female comedy set in the early 1900s.
- There's no good way to spin Georgia State University's decision to discontinue its theater program. After the state of Georgia cut $3.3 million from the university's budget, Georgia State eliminated its theater major, although it will allow students currently enrolled in the program to complete their degrees.
With three tenured professors and 10-15 graduates per year, Georgia State never offered as influential a theater program as Theater Emory, but in this city, every artistic loss hurts.
PushPush Theater is for The Birds. The troupe stages Aristophanes' timeless satire about a utopian society Nov. 19-21 at Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum, 571 S. Kilgo Circle, then presents the comedy Nov. 29-Dec. 14 at PushPush Theater, 121 New St., Decatur. $8-$10. 404-377-6332. www.pushpushtheater.com.
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