Com­edy and magic make the ex­plo­sive play Ma­jor Bang , writes El­iz­a­beth Zim­mer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

AFU­SION of magic, movies, gen­tle ag­it­prop, so­phis­ti­cated phi­los­o­phy and con­tem­po­rary me­dia mash- up, Ma­jor Bang is an as­ton­ish­ing show. You will stop wor­ry­ing, hate the dirty bomb, and love th­ese ac­tors and their team. And you will never look at an unat­tended back­pack at the air­port in the same way again.

The charm and skill of this work — from New York’s Foundry Theatre and about to come to Syd­ney — should en­gross theatre- go­ers of all ages, even those, like Aus­tralians, who did not ex­pe­ri­ence the events of Septem­ber 11 first­hand.

Ma­jor Bang, or How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Dirty Bomb came to life three years ago, en­gi­neered by Me­lanie Joseph, pro­duc­ing artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Foundry Theatre, whose first board mem­ber was scholar Cor­nel West.

‘‘ We make work that gath­ers around philo­soph­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions of a con­tem­po­rary is­sue,’’ says Joseph, 51, who in 1994 had aban­doned a ‘‘ flail­ing free­lance di­rect­ing ca­reer and was try­ing to leave the theatre’’, when West in­spired her to for­get med­i­cal school and re­join the per­for­mance fray.

Thir­teen years later, the Foundry has won a clutch of awards and Ma­jor Bang , its most re­cent tri­umph, has played fes­ti­vals and the­atres across the US since it opened at St Ann’s Ware­house in Brook­lyn in Jan­uary last year. ‘‘ Our mis­sion is to widen our com­mu­nity, to cre­ate a larger per­for­mance of ideas,’’ Joseph says. ‘‘ Ma­jor Bang deals with fear, which is a con­se­quence of ter­ror­ism; it’s not spe­cific to Amer­ica. Peo­ple will un­der­stand that a post- Septem­ber 11 com­mu­nity made it, but the piece it­self has a deeper reach than the lex­i­con of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.’’

Joseph con­ceived of the 75- minute play when she heard Pol­ish- born Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy ex­pert Zbig­niew Brzezin­ski on the ra­dio talk­ing about his book The Choice and ob­serv­ing that there hadn’t been a dec­la­ra­tion of war from a coun­try for a very long time. He dis­cussed ter­ror­ism: small mil­i­tary groups with the abil­ity to en­act big mil­i­tary ac­tions. He called for a rad­i­cal shift in for­eign pol­icy that used to be based on na­tions declar­ing war on one an­other.

‘‘ Now any­one who can raise enough money can build a dirty bomb and that’s war,’’ Joseph says. ‘‘ Na­tion­hood is ar­chaic. I got the book and started think­ing about how to get a han­dle on fear in a way that didn’t pro­voke fear.’’

She watched Stan­ley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Bomb, the Os­car- nom­i­nated com­edy re­leased in 1964.

‘‘ I’d just closed a show with Steve Cuiffo, a pro­fes­sional ma­gi­cian; he’s in the lin­eage of Peter Sell­ers, a con­sum­mate co­me­dian with a sure sense of tim­ing,’’ Joseph says. ‘‘ I’m in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing a sense of won­der. I had the idea to make a piece in which some amaz­ing magic trick would undo the paral­y­sis of fear.

‘‘ Steve brought other source ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing the story about David Hahn, the ra­dioac­tive Boy Scout who built a nu­clear breeder re­ac­tor in his garage near Detroit to get an atomic en­ergy badge. It was like hyper­text: we kept link­ing to more and more sto­ries, and we didn’t want to let go of any of them.

‘‘ It be­came clear that it would be use­ful to work with a writer. We in­vited Kirk Lynn, who’s good at keep­ing many balls in the air.’’

Says Lynn, 35, a Texan: ‘‘ We went and saw Steve per­form, and started talk­ing to him; the lit­mus test was that some­one would come in the room and there was this quick talk­ing, sud­denly throw­ing out ideas. Could we build a bomb? Things were out of con­trol on the first day.’’

Cuiffo ( pro­nounced chew- fo), 29, is a na­tive New Yorker whose grand­fa­ther taught him magic. He stud­ied act­ing at New York Univer­sity’s Tisch School of the Arts and in Lon­don, and per­formed with the Wooster Group in North At­lantic and Brace Up.

Of the col­lab­o­ra­tion with Lynn, Cuiffo says: ‘‘ We sat around in a re­hearsal room at the Foundry for six to eight- hour days. It was a re­ally wild process; it was go­ing to be a one- per­son show, with me play­ing the var­i­ous char­ac­ters. My brother had just given me a box set of CDs of never- be­fore- re­leased Lenny Bruce ma­te­rial; it was amaz­ing and just turned my world over.’’ Be­fore they knew it, Bruce, the rad­i­cal comic who died in 1966, be­came a char­ac­ter in Ma­jor Bang .

‘‘ Kirk brought in The Body­guard , with Kevin Cost­ner and Whit­ney Hous­ton; we just kept it,’’ says Cuiffo, ex­plain­ing the ever- ex­pand­ing play.

‘‘ We’d come up with stuff that we liked and said: ‘ Maybe we need a di­rec­tor. Paul Lazar would be per­fect.’ ’’

Lazar, an­other New Yorker, di­rects the Big Dance Theatre and has acted with the Wooster Group and in all of Jonathan Demme’s pic­tures since 1987, in­clud­ing The Si­lence of the Lambs , Mar­ried to the Mob, Philadel­phia and The Manchurian Can­di­date . ‘‘ Paul def­i­nitely wanted to work on it,’’ Cuiffo says.

Says Lazar: ‘‘ All the bound­aries be­tween dis­ci­plines melted away. All the col­lab­o­ra­tors re­mained in the room through­out the re­hearsal process. If a scene needed re­work­ing, Kirk pro­duced a new ver­sion within hours. We be­came a bunch of slightly hy­per kids, in­tensely fo­cused the way kids at play are, pre­tend­ing that some­thing in­sane was hap­pen­ing to us.

‘‘ Our fierce, re­lent­less fool­ing around


Kirk’s nar­ra­tive pro­duced an un­canny, con­tra­dic­tory the­atri­cal event: a joy­ful, play­ful, lov­ing ad­mis­sion that we are on the verge of do­ing the very worst to one an­other. Ma­jor Bang is sub­ver­sive and pa­tri­otic. I hope this pro­duc­tion steeps our au­di­ence in some of the fer­tile con­tra­dic­tions we learned to live joy­ously inside of while cre­at­ing the piece.’’

With two ac­tors play­ing about six roles in the piece, there are many quick cos­tume changes.

‘‘ Ma­jor Bang starts out grounded, with an even pace, and as the drama- com­edy screws tighten, things go faster and faster ’ til you don’t even have time to change a cos­tume, you just turn from one profile to an­other,’’ Lazar says. ‘‘ It ramps up to a hys­ter­i­cal, cli­mac­tic cul­mi­na­tion.’’

Lynn works in Austin, Texas, with the­atri­cal col­lec­tive Rude Me­chan­i­cals. One of his spe­cial­ties is col­lab­o­ra­tion. He re­alised Ma­jor Bang was more than a one- per­son show. The sec­ond char­ac­ter started as a mys­te­ri­ous key­board player.

Says Cuiffo: ‘‘ We got Mag­gie Hoff­man and for two months the five of us — in­clud­ing stage man­ager Jill Beck­man, who’s def­i­nitely part of the team — worked through the script. Paul wanted us to im­pro­vise; if some­thing came up he’d get us to pull it out, make th­ese re­ally in­ter­est­ing scenes. We have a lot of fun on­stage.’’

Hoff­man, the last per­son to come on board, is from Ohio and grad­u­ated in per­for­mance stud­ies from the Chicago Art In­sti­tute. She founded the Wil­liams­burg- based punk- rock ex­per­i­men­tal theatre Ra­dio­hole, also a col­lec­tive.

‘‘ It’s not a band,’’ she says of her 10- year- old group, ‘‘ but the way we work is more akin to how a rock band works than to a tra­di­tional theatre com­pany. It’s a rad­i­cal col­lab­o­ra­tive democ­racy. There’s no di­rec­tor, no tech­ni­cian: we all do ev­ery­thing, sim­i­lar to the way we worked on Ma­jor Bang . Steve and I drink a lot of cof­fee; it’s an amaz­ingly manic show to per­form. We’re all th­ese dif­fer­ent peo­ple at once, con­stantly switch­ing clothes and wigs and char­ac­ters. I con­trol most of the sound.

‘‘ In Ra­dio­hole we run the sound and lights and tech­ni­cal equip­ment from the stage as we per­form, so that’s what they have me do. At the same time that we’re all th­ese dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, some­times we’re just Mag­gie and Steve.’’

Lynn won­ders how Ma­jor Bang will be re­ceived out­side the US. ‘‘ It’s not polemic,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s hu­man. It’s per­son­ally po­lit­i­cal, not party po­lit­i­cal. That’s why I’m ex­cited to be do­ing it in Aus­tralia; I want to keep test­ing its uni­ver­sal­ity. They [ Aus­tralians] have a sim­i­lar po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion: a con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment that snuck in out of nowhere and is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly less pop­u­lar. There was this pe­riod when my non- Amer­i­can friends thought it was very weird that no one was crit­i­cis­ing Bush’s poli­cies, which are to­tally in­sane. My com­pany in Austin thinks we’re not tak­ing enough blame, as Amer­i­cans who elected him, for what hap­pened.’’

Ma­jor Bang be­gan life in a spe­cially con­structed, 100- seat space un­der the bleach­ers at St Ann’s. When the com­pany toured to a 600- seat theatre in Nashville, Cuiffo says, ‘‘ It turned out to be amaz­ing. It was ex­cit­ing to learn that it can go very big, that you can look at it from a dis­tance and see things in a dif­fer­ent way.’’

None of the Ma­jor Bang ensem­ble has vis­ited Aus­tralia be­fore.

Cuiffo is fas­ci­nated to be visit­ing be­cause one of his he­roes, ma­gi­cian and es­cape artist Harry Hou­dini, ‘‘ was the first pilot to fly in Aus­tralia’’.

‘‘ He helped pro­mote avi­a­tion. In 1910 he did flight demon­stra­tions and got a com­men­da­tion from the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment; he was in­stru­men­tal in pro­mot­ing flight to the Aus­tralian pub­lic,’’ he mar­vels.

‘‘ I’ve al­ways wanted to go,’’ Hoff­man says. ‘‘ Out­side New York, au­di­ences were so open; they lis­tened so in­tently. It was great to see that it worked out of the city be­cause it’s so much about what we were go­ing through at the time.’’ The Foundry Theatre’s Ma­jor Bang is at the Play­house, Syd­ney Opera House, July 17- 29.

Manic per­for­mances: Mag­gie Hoff­man and Steve Cuiffo in Ma­jor Bang , main pic­ture; left, from top to bot­tom, Cuiffo and Hoff­man in scenes from the play, which uses hu­mour to deal with the fear of ter­ror­ism

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