DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME
Comedy and magic make the explosive play Major Bang , writes Elizabeth Zimmer
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