It is a rare play that is both a dusty historical artifact and a vibrant contemporary satire. Yet that is what Oberlin Summer Theater Festival is offering with The Cradle Will Rock.
Running in repertory with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Bus Stop, this revival of the Marc Blitzstein agitprop, pro-union musical from some 80 years ago is a muscular and engaging piece of theater. A stunning, finely meshed cast and the restless imagination of director Joey Rizzolo give this potentially creaky material a massive jolt of energy.
Originally performed in the 1930s, in an era when labor unions were just forming and organizers' heads were being busted by corporate thugs, the show raised a ruckus in New York City. Directed by Orson Welles, the play was deemed so politically flammable that pressure forced the federal Works Progress Administration, which was funding the production, to shut down the show.
The actors, employees of the Federal Theater Project, were told they were prohibited from appearing on any stage that wasn't officially approved by the Project. So Welles and his producer John Houseman decided to move to another theater and have the actors perform their roles from the audience seats. The non-union member Blitzstein sat in for the orchestra, pounding out the score on a piano onstage.
That history helps one appreciate the thumping, delicious presentation at Oberlin. Channeling many of the raw elements of the original production, director Rizzolo has a single pianist onstage, with many of the stage directions spoken aloud and projected on the expansive stack of wooden crates that constitutes most of the set.
Employing loads of stylized movement, Fosse-like close-formation dance steps, and extreme costuming (including clown noses on some of those we are meant to mock), there is rarely a dull moment in the 90-minute show.
This virtually sung-through performance combines aspects of both opera and the dance hall — and it all comes together splendidly under the music direction of Carter Sligh. The songs paint a portrait of society where the sleazy and arrogant rich (embodied by Mr. and Mrs. Mister) manage to turn everyone else into whores of one stripe or another — manipulating them to sell out from the church pulpit to the daily newspaper to the arts community.
Meanwhile, honorable working people, as represented by Larry Foreman (Donnie Sheldon), try to unite and fight back. This intentionally artificial storytelling reflects the dramatic philosophy of Bertolt Brecht and is meant to make the audience think as much as it feels. And you won't need an instruction sheet to find parallels to the political discussions being waged today.
Marc Moritz and Katherine DeBoer are joyously despicable as the wealthy, amoral Misters. And even without a dressage horse in sight, they still might remind some of a current high-profile couple in the political news.
The craven Liberty Committee, a group of community leaders that fawn over the Misters, is made up of various lickspittles played by a tight ensemble. Highlights from this group include a slimy Matthew Wright as Editor Daily, Darryl Lewis as the pious but pliable Rev. Salvation, and William Hoffman and Ali Bianchi as two spineless artists eager to bend their high ideals to the Misters' whims.
Several of the cast members are cast in multiple roles, and no one does it better than Llewie Nunez. She changes from a snort-laughing daughter of the Misters to the doomed young son of Harry Druggist (an achingly demoralized Dana Hart), and then to a fire-breathing football coach.
One of the many ways this show resonates today is when it speaks of freedom, a word used with reckless abandon by those who would seek to deny it to others. As Foreman says about a non-union employee: "He's all alone. Sure he's free — free to be wiped out."
Speaking of freedom, this is a free-of-charge show. But seating is finite, so reservations are recommended.