Edward Albee is far better at connecting with his audience than staying on-topic. Originally the acclaimed playwright was scheduled to keynote a Davidson College symposium, held in the waning days of this year's Royal Shakespeare Company Residency on campus, and address the mighty theme of "The State of Theatre and the Arts in America."
By the time I arrived at Duke Family Performance Hall on Saturday morning, posters outside the Alvarez Student Union and inside the lobby had discreetly trimmed the soaring ambition of the address to friendlier dimensions, "A Morning With Edward Albee." Who could do that better?
Freed of the obligation to provide us with a definitive, comprehensive overview, Albee favored us with a few trenchant observations on the current arts and theater scene, peppered with piercing thrusts at the Bush administration. More often, he sketched a self-portrait of the artist as a young troublemaker -- a roguish role that Albee clearly relishes.
Naturally, Albee's self-analysis was sharp and shrewd, sprinkled with the charming acidity we find in some of his most memorable stage characters. He reveals that he was a Southern boy, having been born in Virginia before he was whisked out of the cradle to New York by his adoptive parents. To those Carolinians who don't consider Virginians part of the region, he was willing to concede the point.
Shuttled by his rich parents back and forth from Florida to New York, Albee claimed that his education was schizoid -- perhaps a good thing, in his view. He then went on to catalog the chain of schools he was tossed out of, including the Valley Forge Military Academy, where two subjects were taught, sadism and masochism.
He appeared proud of the one school he did graduate from, Choate, and fellow alums Adlai E. Stevenson and JFK. There was an interesting contretemps at Trinity College, where Albee attempted to disseminate his personal curriculum of classical composers to the student body and faculty, via the weekly newspaper, while school administrators vainly sought to get Albee to adhere to their curriculum. Recognizing who owned the real estate, Albee gracefully bowed out.
But what I found most fascinating were Albee's reminiscences about his formative years, age 18-28, leading up to his breakthrough with The Zoo Story. Complicit in Albee's rise to prominence were classical composer David Diamond, who admired and disseminated the script; the West Berlin theater company that presented its world premiere, in translation, on a double bill with Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett; and the New York Times writer who happened to be there -- returning sufficiently impressed to decry that fact that Albee and his work had to journey so far to get a hearing.
That little story was itself a telling commentary on the ills of American theater, but Albee offered a direct diagnosis. The "killing hand of commerce," which equates popularity with excellence, drew Albee's blame for sapping the vitality out of the American arts scene and deflecting artists from their true purpose. With a courtly nod toward the Bard, Albee reminded us that the true purpose of theater is to hold up a mirror to the audience -- showing us publically what needs to be changed.
ALTHOUGH RSC brought no Shakespeare with them from Stratford-on-Avon for this year's residency, they were not to be upstaged by Albee. Over the weekend, they unveiled a work-in-progress that's been gestating on campus over the last month. Rona Munro's new drama, Little Eagles (working title), was presented in a compelling reading-stage format.
Chronicling the race into space -- and the moon -- from 1938 to 1972, the maiden flight of Eagles featured Davidson students in supernumerary roles and student sculpture of Sputnik and other relevant subjects. What really blasted Eagles beyond the Charlotte Rep script-in-hand readings we were once accustomed to at Booth Playhouse were the visuals projected behind the actors, one for each of the 23 scenes.
Even quieter than Albee's arch thrusts against capitalism, Eagles carried a subversive message of its own. Reaching the moon, one of mankind's sterling peacetime achievements, could never have happened without the rocket technology developed in Nazi Germany during WWII or the competitive propagandistic environment of the Cold War afterwards.
That's old news. What Munro is telling us very explicitly is that, if a Soviet scientist named Sergei Pavlovich Kovlov hadn't been able to escape a Siberian gulag and succeed in selling Josef Stalin on his dream -- and Nikita Khrushchev after him -- there wouldn't have been a space race. Or an American flag on moon, avenging the Soviet Union's successes.
Now that's the kind of story our American theater establishment isn't ready to hear or tell, for reasons Edward Albee began discovering when he first tried to produce The Zoo Story in his native land.
ANYBODY ELSE tired of Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre's Revelations? Let me hear an "Amen!" Couldn't hear any on Friday night when the troupe returned to Belk Theater for its third Charlotte engagement in five years -- all ending with the founder's signature piece.
The Aileys are reaching out beyond Revelations in new directions, two of them if the Friday program is indicative. Twyla Tharp's The Golden Section emphasizes the corps' athleticism, sending wave after wave across the stage tumbling, twirling and leaping in what might be described as brown golden basketball uniforms. As tedious a celebration as I've seen in many a year.
MAURICE BEJART'S Firebird, a new take on the Stravinsky classic, was another matter entirely, effectively deepening the landmark music and using the ensemble to advantage. Collectively, they seemed to be a menacing winged thing, but the gray group was counterbalanced by a bright red interloper, Clifton Brown in some bravura work. Brown's was a meteoric performance. Fitting, then, that Brown should be succeeded, Phoenix-like, by another red fireball at music's end.
If there's more where that's coming from, I'd love to see it.