The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius...
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
November 30, 2008
I was expecting marionettes. The postcard had marionettes. The name of the group is the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre. So—I was expecting marionettes. This show, however, is free of such things, except for a tableau at the top, with two marionettes perched in tiny electric chairs. Besides no marionettes, the show also has a very long title—The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes, and about Their Untymelie End While Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.
The show concerns Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only American civilians ever executed for espionage. Passions ran high at the time and nearly 60 years later, the story of the Rosenbergs continues its crooked path. Morton Sobell, Julius's co-defendant, recently admitted that Julius engaged in espionage. Ruth Greenglass, Ethel's sister-in-law, died after nearly 50 years of living under an assumed name, years after her husband David all but admitted they lied to save themselves. Julius and Ethel's own sons have now concluded their guilt. But recently released grand jury transcripts also suggest the government may have known their case was built on lies. Soviet sources have admitted the information obtained by Julius was essentially worthless. The story, still unraveling after decades, grows stranger. Can the guilty be railroaded?
Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre wades into the fray with The Very Sad Story, a work which incorporates Brechtian performance styles, an accordion, percussion, the occasional tap step, and costumes which look like they could have been pinched from the movie The Cradle Will Rock. Adapted and directed by CAMT founder Vit Horejs, Very Sad Story is an attempt to pin down this tangled tale in a specific theatrical form.
Unfortunately, Sad Story is both well-meaning and plodding, and it's undone by weak storytelling and acting. There is information on the Great Depression, biographical background—Julius's father fled the conscription of the Czar's army—and a glimpse of radical politics at the time. But for theatre trafficking in such big issues, the performance is curiously lacking in intensity, and attempts at graveyard wit fall flat. (Electric chairs are used too often as visuals, and it weakens the impact.) Dramatic digressions—including a lengthy one on Edison and the electric chair—slow the momentum without a comedic or dramatic payoff. Even a number for ghastly nemesis Roy Cohn, performed in man-drag by Michelle Beshaw, fails to perk things up.
For theatre so rooted in politics and conventions of political theatre, Very Sad Story is very lacking in any point of view on the Rosenbergs. We learn they both climbed out of grinding poverty, they both had dreams, they worshipped Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, and were brought down by nasty men with vague political motives. But what does this story mean now? Why are they still newsworthy? Why are books, plays and movies still made about them? Why the hell is Ethel a character in Kushner's Angels in America, one of the most magnificent American plays in decades? Vit Horejs has stated in interviews that his views on the Rosenbergs have changed and evolved, but his adaptation gives no indication of why they still fire our imaginations.
'The acting is mostly uneven. Exceptions are Theresa Linnihan and Deborah Beshaw. Linnihan plays Ethel and also doubles as as associate director, and wrote several of the snappy Weill-ish tunes. Her Ethel makes a strong impression as she journeys from optimistic young girl to lovesick wife to martyr. Deborah Beshaw as Ethel's carping mother is also exceptional, and her crabbed rendition of "Tessie's Song: A Son is a Hundred Blessings," (composed by Linnihan) is a highlight.
The heroes of this performance are the musicians, particularly accordionist Carmen Staaf, but also including Nick Gianni on bass and saxophone and Kenny Wolleson. Their contributions enliven the proceedings considerably. Staaf provides the piece with the appropriate Brecht-Weill vibe and what forward propulsion it has.