Get me a rewrite 

When the real world upstages plays

Last week, playwright Jeffrey Sweet took issue with my review of his play The Action Against Sol Schumann, running through Feb. 29 at Jewish Theatre of the South.

Action takes place in 1985 and includes a few scenes with characters either looking at the World Trade Center from a distance or having meetings in its offices. In my review, I wrote, "Sweet's mention of the World Trade Center, while period-appropriate, feels mostly like a signifier of the play's mighty big ideas."

In a short, polite e-mail, Sweet pointed out, "The Action Against Sol Schumann was written and premiered before 9-11. The reason the interrogation scene takes place in the World Trade Center is that is where, in fact, the interviews of the OSI often did take place when they deposed people in New York."

I didn't mean to suggest that Sweet's drama (about a Holocaust survivor accused of being a concentration camp guard) came after 9-11, but my argument still holds. The World Trade Center didn't mean the same thing when Sweet wrote Action as it does now. To today's audiences, the two towers carry a symbolic weight that can unbalance an already politically complex play such as Action.

When events overtake play scripts, as happened with Action, what should playwrights and theaters do? Should they alter lines that become dated -- and if so, how?

Stage plays get changed all the time. Shakespeare and other long works in the public domain (anything published in the United States before 1923) routinely get shortened. With more recent material under copyright protection, you can't alter a word without violating a contract. But many times I've seen little cultural references altered in local productions, especially in English plays.

In theory, I believe the script is sacred. In practice, I think theaters should carefully consider outdated references and seek permission to change them if they take the audience "out" of the play.

For instance, in Essential Theatre's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (playing at Dad's Garage Top Shelf through March 7), a disabled lesbian rabbi expounds on themes of why good things happen to bad people. She lists her own misfortunes and adds, "Saddam Hussein's driving a Mercedes" and "Brooke Shields has a series." Artistic director Peter Hardy and the company discussed how the lines had lost their relevance, but since they were true when the character had her accident, they let them stand.

But the audience immediately knows that Hussein's not in a Mercedes -- he's in a Hannibal Lecter cage somewhere, and Brooke Shields no longer has a TV series. Requesting permission to change the Fabulous lines seems wholly appropriate since there's no shortage of bad people out there who have Mercedes. Or TV series. Hell, Donald Trump has both.

My UGA professor David Hazinski used to tell a story about his experience as a NBC correspondent. As a TV reporter just starting out, he asserted that he had far too much integrity to use hair spray. Then a more experienced reporter told him that if he didn't do something with his hair and had to file a report from a windy location, the audience wouldn't listen to his news but would instead watch his hair.

Compared to television or film, theater is traditionally a writer's medium, which is what gives the art form some of its greatest strengths. But when times change, playwrights and playhouses should ensure that audiences aren't distracted by the hair.

Fancy footwork

Ballethnic Dance Company will replace The New Jomandi in the Alliance Theatre's City Series. For its second year, the City Series emphasizes a theme of diversity. The African-American dance company joins Irish/Celtic troupe Theatre Gael, Jewish Theatre of the South and the female-oriented Synchronicity Performance Group.

Since 1990, Ballethnic has combined classical ballet with modern, jazz and ethnic dance forms, and during the City Series will present two shows: Psychedelia (June 3-5, 9-10 and 12) and Shades of Ebony (June 5-6 and 11-13).

The New Jomandi dropped its production of Home from the City Series following the cancellation of its 2003-04 season.

Movies on stage

The 2004-05 Broadway in Atlanta series should feel right at home at the Fox Theatre, a former movie palace: Four of the six shows owe at least some of their popularity to the movies.

Bob Fosse's musical Chicago (Oct. 5-10) found a second life thanks to the Oscar-winning film adaptation. The musical Oliver! (Nov. 9-14) became a Best Picture Oscar winner in 1968. Little Shop of Horrors (Feb. 1-6) is a stage musical based on a 1960 play that was made into a film in 1986, and Hairspray (Feb. 15-27) musicalizes John Waters' terrific 1988 film. Broadway in Atlanta better hope that ticket buyers don't go to Blockbuster instead.

The series also includes Movin' Out (March 29-April 3), derived from Billy Joel songs and Twyla Tharp choreography, and Patti Lupone: Matters of the Heart (May 10-15), a musical revue.

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.


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