ShPIeL—Performing Identity. By Roslyn Alexander. Directed by Dennis Zacek. With Alexander. 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kevin Thomas
While there’s a great story in Emma Goldman, early 20th-century anarchist, speaker and revolutionary, this seems not the way to do it.
There’s no question veteran actor Roslyn Alexander is charming and animated onstage as a retired rabble-rouser, telling the story of her life from her French cottage in the 1930s. Her eyes twinkle and her voice lilts until she returns to the injustice and suffering of the poor; then her gaze turns to fire and she starts proclaiming and proselytizing as if on her old soapbox in Chicago or New York.
But Alexander's narrative seeks no more than to be charming, as Emma cozies up to a happy chat with the audience punctuated by the occasional outburst. It reminds one of asking a grandparent about the war, only to be trapped by an hour-long ramble that leaves out all the exciting or horrific bits that would be improper to mention. In wooing her curious public, Emma makes assassinations, czarist Russia and a string of lovers into quaint stories. There is no immediacy in the narrative, and no real dirt either.
And unfortunately, little depth. In her dotage, Alexander's Emma suffers no doubts, though her life saw friends come and go, hopes rise and fall, and the revolution in her mother Russia corrupted by Lenin just as she’s deported from the States. Her sole feeling is passion, and it overrides all other concerns.
Granted, Emma Goldman sounds like she could be a single-minded woman. But where The Passions of Emma Goldman truly misses the mark is the failure to explore her ideas. It names them, but does not engage them. She advocated for birth control in the 1800s, workers' rights in the age of sweatshops, free sex and love when women still wore corsets. Through no device are we transported to a time when all this was radical. The impact of her activism is lost when the play, though set in the ’30s, speaks directly to 2014, when all her passions are commonplace. It wants to put her on the side of the angels, but in doing so loses how dangerous—in the best way—she really must’ve been.