Charles O'Malley

For What It's Worth

Review of Re:Union, Yale Cabaret

The fraught sacrifice required by war is given an unusual spin in Sean Devine’s Re:Union. The war dead are in most cases those who fought and died, on either side. In the case of the story of Norman Morrison, the part of civilian casualty of war takes on a different dimension—not only of a personal sacrifice but also of public protest.

In 1965, as the war in Vietnam escalated, Morrison, a married Quaker teacher and father of three, staged a self-immolation outside the Pentagon window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The event was one of a few such protests on U.S. soil, perhaps spurred by the famous coverage from 1963—including photos and film footage—of a Vietnamese monk lighting himself on fire in Saigon in a call for religious equality after Buddhist monks were killed by government forces in South Vietnam. In the case of Morrison, the choice of location and the fact that his three-year-old daughter, Emily, was in his arms at least until he doused himself in kerosene, added not only more potential symbolism to his act but also more mystery and drama.

Emily Morrison (Louisa Jacobson), Robert McNamara (Charles O'Malley) (Photographs by Johnny Moreno)

Emily Morrison (Louisa Jacobson), Robert McNamara (Charles O'Malley) (Photographs by Johnny Moreno)

Re:Union capitalizes on the degree to which Morrison’s act was likely meant as, and was certainly viewed as, an indictment of McNamara specifically, as the man who, at that time, argued most pervasively that the war could be won. The play’s main action takes place in 2001 when Emily (Louisa Jacobson), now in her thirties, confronts McNamara (Charles O’Malley) about the escalating war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. She’s seeking a means to protest the Patriot Act as sanctioning tyranny, but is also, as becomes clear, looking for a way to come to terms with the past.

The play, which has been shortened for the Yale Cabaret’s running time with the permission of the author, triangulates the action by showing us, 1) Norman teaching a lesson on Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac, in 1965; 2) Emily, in 2001, addressing both McNamara and her father on video, as well as, eventually, McNamara in person, and 3) staged “clips” of McNamara, during his time in the Pentagon, addressing the press or TV in various contexts, and, eventually speaking with Emily.

Director Jecamiah Ybañez and the production's proposer and projection designer Wladimiro A. Woyno R. evoke the varying levels of conscience through trenchant overlaps, so that the story and its ramifications seem to occupy a claustrophobic, obsessional mental space. Emily speaks into a camera which projects her image on screen, as she tries to find the words that would elicit a sense of complicity from McNamara; McNamara, always very poised and relentlessly dry, expounds his war strategy to unseen listeners or deflects criticisms with a lofty tone; Norman, with cute overhead projections, expounds on Abraham’s pact with God, then announces that God has shown him his purpose. As Norman, Jared Andrew Michaud, in a Cab debut, moves from a driven teacher to an eerily detached zealot with only one purpose.

Norman Morrison (Jared Andrew Michaud)

Norman Morrison (Jared Andrew Michaud)

Emily wants closure on the Vietnam War, as a misguided sacrifice of U.S. lives and the destruction of the land and peoples of the belligerent regions of Vietnam, even as the U.S. embarks vaingloriously, and some would say cynically, upon another costly military enterprise. While still personally troubled by her father’s act, Emily, played with an involving sense of conviction by Jacobson, ponders the effects of inaction. She’s not opening old wounds but rather showing that there has never been a return to health in the U.S.

But the play also reflects somewhat the change of heart toward the war that McNamara displayed in works such as the film The Fog of War (2003), and in his comments to Emily’s mother as recorded in the latter’s memoir. O’Malley plays McNamara as a bit of a Vulcan, all about rationality and the logic of his strategy. His main emotion is a certain vindictiveness toward Morrison for fouling the air so abysmally and causing him great personal distress. He seems at best petulant about the event, only gradually, and grudgingly, allowing that Morrison’s conviction caused him, at least to some degree, to question his own beliefs.

What comes out most forcefully in the Cabaret’s gripping and effective staging of the play is the extent to which McNamara demanded sacrifices of his country to an unconscionable degree or at least for a cause he found himself doubting. That demand is set against the faith of Morrison’s uncompromising act, which lets the cost of his loss fall upon his family. Both men, whether acting for the sake of God or for their country or for the dying Vietnamese, are willing to cause great suffering. Of the two, only McNamara had to live with that.

Emily Morrison (Louisa Jacobson)

Emily Morrison (Louisa Jacobson)

 

Re:Union
By Sean Devine
Directed by Jecamiah Ybañez
Proposed by Wladimiro A. Woyno R.

Dramaturgs: Patrick Young & Alex Vermillion; Set Designer: Gerardo Diaz Sanchez; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Projection Designer: Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Sound Designer/Composer: Frederick Kennedy; Producers: Kathy Li & Laurie OM; Stage Managers: Cate Worthington & Madeline Charne; Technical Director: LT Gourzong; Associate Projection Designer: Brittany Bland

Cast: Louisa Jacobson, Jared Andrew Michaud, Charles O’Malley

Yale Cabaret
October 5-7, 2017

SILENCE = DEATH

Review of The Other World, Yale Cabaret

The Other World, written by Yale School of Drama playwright Charles O’Malley, returns us to the heart of the Aids crisis. A slice of the life of 1980s’ New York artist David Wojnarowicz, adapted from his memoir Close to the Knives, the play dramatizes key events in Wojnarowicz’s artistic life to reanimate the past in episodic scenes presented with a sure hand by first-time director Baize Buzan. Less is more in the spare set, complete with particle-board flooring, a sheet draped casually to serve as a screen for the artist’s overhead projections—a bit of authentic technology that does a Proustian madeleine number on aging memories—and a general feel of the open spaces of those unrenovated SoHo warehouses. In other words, the play is something of a time machine and I, for one, was glad to see a contemporary brought to life so well.

David (Jos  é   Espinosa)  (photo:; Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa) (photo:; Elli Green)

The play’s David (José Espinosa) is an introspective figure whose musings have both great immediacy and fascinating detachment. The loss of David’s lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, to Aids is narrated rather than presented, with further details furnished by Marion (Louisa Jacobson), David’s friend and agent. It’s to the credit of all involved that Peter’s demise comes across with both poignancy and inevitability. Comments on a dying-man’s wish of a visit to the shore lets us intuit the frayed nerves, the sensitive psyches, and, more than anything, the unspeakable specter of death coming to the young and talented. By letting us hear how David copes, O’Malley keeps our focus both on the events and an artist’s access to them. Wojnarowicz, who worked in various media, took pictures and video of his lover’s corpse, an act very much in accord with their shared aesthetic. As David, Espinosa presents a serious artist whose art is very much a confrontation with existence, a battle for personal worth in a damaged world.

Friend (Michael Breslin),   David (Jos  é   Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

Friend (Michael Breslin), David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

A visit from a Friend (played with uneasy panache by Michael Breslin) lets us see how out of touch David can be, even while trying to get in touch with his own feelings. The chain-smoking, while a minor detail, speaks volumes for the era these street-based artists inhabit. The Friend’s grasp of his own doomed chances prefigures Wojnarowicz’s fate, but also re-enacts, in miniature, the risky collectivity of gays at the time. The “who can know and who can’t” aspect of their exchange is spot-on. Eventually we see David overcome his morose withdrawal and begin to take steps toward activism, his anger and heartbreak overtaking even his “must-get-away from New York” trip through the Southwest.

David (Jos  é   Espinosa) ,  Marion (Louisa Jacobson)  (photo: Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa), Marion (Louisa Jacobson) (photo: Elli Green)

That trip—in a segment called “on the road”—gives the play some of its best scenes, as David breaks out of his silence to confide an early sexual exploit in a movie theater and then to rail at Marion for being a confidante who doesn’t confide enough herself. As played with canny conviction by Louisa Jacobsen, Marion is an interesting character with her own conflicts. Her faith in David, after working with him for five years, is being tried by his state of mourning and his growing interest in the politics of the plague. Their exchanges do much to give us a sense of how they see themselves and each other, and provide a context of youth and exploration that, if not dated, is at least a reminder of how Aids changed so much and cost so many.

Without making heavy-handed parallels with the present, O’Malley’s play reanimates a specific era of repression to remind us of how hard-won rights were and admission to the status quo has been, and to indicate that getting a hearing in government is no easy matter. It’s not that a trip back in time is going to make Trump look better, but it does serve to highlight how shitty conservative governments can be to anyone outside their ideology. Marches and protest might make for good political theater but, as Marion exhorts David, an artist can make larger and perhaps more telling statements. And so is born an artist-activist, aghast at the horrors made normative by American indifference.

Born 100 years after his sometime artistic alter-ego Arthur Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz, like Rimbaud, died at 37. Both continue to live on because both have something to say to the “accursed” on the outside or margins of the mainstream. If “silence = death,” one of the slogans of Aids activism popularized by ACT UP, it’s also the case that death, for visionary artists like Wojnarowicz, doesn’t equal silence.

David (Jos  é   Espinosa)   (photo: Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

 

The Other World
By Charles O’Malley
Adapted from Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
Directed by Baize Buzan

Production Dramaturg: Kari Olmon; Scenic Designer: Paul Rasmussen; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner; Projections Designers: Yana Birÿkova, Michael Commendatore; Scenic Advisor: Ashley Flowers; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme

Cast: Michael Breslin, José Espinosa, Louisa Jacobson

 

Yale Cabaret
April 6-8, 2017