Theater Review: CARRY IT ON! (Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles)

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by Tony Frankel on August 22, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles


If you are into political rallies that are jam-packed with guilt-inducing inspiration, then bundle up your harmonica, washtub bass, guitar, picket signs, seat cushions, and picnic; call forth a sense of injustice, and march to the hippie hills of Topanga. No, you’re not on your way to a fundraiser for Utopians United. Rather, compiler and editor Ellen Geer and the Theatricum Botanicum invite you to Carry It On!, a human slide show of ‘Great Moments in American History’: a compendium of prose, speech, and music by (mostly) famous Americans.

At first, it appears we are watching Children’s Theatre, but instead of The Brementown Musicians, we get a slavery theme, something like The Jamestown Slaveholders. Actors sing folk songs, and then speak in unison with a tone that is ominously close to passive-aggressive finger wagging; in a blink of an eye, we are transported to American Independence and plopped directly into the Civil War, when a youthful, unaffected Abe Lincoln (Mark Lewis) begins to offer snippets on the injustice of slavery, and magnificent William Dennis Hunt offers up a droll Walt Whitman. All told, there will be more than 50 Americans on display, some presented with astounding authenticity and others merely representational, which makes one long for a deeper interpretation.

This is a Geer family tradition, started by blacklisted actor Will Geer when his daughter, Ellen, was young, and introduced to workers’ rallies and union songs. You will be hard-pressed to encounter a more well-intentioned, intelligent, and talented actress than Miss Geer (in fact, her portrayals of Eleanor Roosevelt and Bella Abzug are phenomenal), but the idea to spur the audience into action by offering up American notables who fought the system backfired in Act One. The choice of material presents a liberal and sentimental overview – Carnegie is the villain, the worker is the victim; Ford is Satan and the assembly-line workers angelic, etc.; it leaves the audience with a stupor of culpability (in fact, I haven’t felt so uplifted since I saw back-to-back productions of King Lear).

The result is that Carry It On! becomes a palatable, left-leaning education more than a theatrical experience. I’m as anti-war as the next guy, but America’s history is not so cut-and-dried and the audience is not schoolchildren; freedom would seem like a nobler goal if we could relate to the complexities of the issues at hand by hearing from those voices that weren’t so one-sided. Notably missing are topical subjects such as gay marriage; no doubt Miss Geer has her hands full of other material, but what a missed opportunity to delve into all sides of an issue: pro, con, and those who wonder why marriage is legalized for anybody. Perhaps it’s still too taboo a subject; future Theatricum spectators can wonder why they allowed such inhumane treatment against fellow Americans, especially if they’re Lefties.

That said, the speeches often blazed into misty-eyed motivation in Act Two, especially the civil rights section, starting with the effective Rowena Johnson as Elizabeth Eckford (of Little Rock Nine fame), the stunning and powerful Gerald C. Rivers as MLK, and into the Vietnam War. The section on Farm Workers (with Daniel Chacon’s really, really angry Latinos) and Immigrants began to back-slide a bit into Miss Geer’s clear agenda: propaganda.

Praise goes to some wonderful overall singing; also, the performances of both Michael Keith Allen and the constantly amazing Earnestine Phillips (her Sojurner Truth speech, ‘And Aint I a Woman,’ will not be soon forgotten).

Although Carry It On! may not melt the heart of a cynic, it should be noted that some (especially kids) could be inspired to appreciate the freedoms that we do have, which, if this was Miss Geer’s intention, is to be duly noted. Just bring those (heavy duty) seat cushions for the wooden benches. You don’t need to feel like you’re on a slave ship.

photos by Miriam Geer

Carry It On!
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Topanga
ends on September 26, 2010
for tickets, call 310.455.3723 or visit Theatricum

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