Hindi Greenberg: ‘Emma’ is political theater with heart
September 5, 2018
The Upstart Theatre Company's production of "Emma" is presented with passion, belief and humor.
The play, about the life, ideas and politics of the famed anarchist, feminist and free-spirited thinker, Emma Goldman, brings to life her emergence as one of the foremost radical intellectual and dissident activists in America in the early 20th century.
The play, first performed in 1976, was penned by historian, playwright and social activist Howard Zinn, a political science professor at Boston University who described himself as "something of an anarchist, something of a socialist."
The material for the play was drawn from Goldman's autobiography, speeches and political writings, as well as correspondence between her and fellow anarchist Alexander "Sasha" Berkman, Emma's lover and lifelong friend.
"Emma" dramatizes events from Goldman's life, chronicling her evolution from a naive immigrant textile factory worker in the late 1880s to becoming a revolutionary, anarchist and perceived public threat by the powers of the day, who eventually exiled her from the United States because of her outspoken views. J. Edgar Hoover called her, " … [one] of the most dangerous anarchists in this country … "
During the first act, the characters of "Emma" and her cohorts are well developed and their beliefs coherently put forth.
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In the second act, the writing continues to exhibit humor, strong feeling and insight, but occasionally becomes trite, rife with bad cops, hugs among comrades and preachy polemics — no fault of the actors, only of the playwright.
One of the best moments is a caustic speech by the anarchist leader, Johann Most (entertainingly played by T.E. Wolfe), lambasting Sasha Berkman's incompetence in trying, but failing, to assassinate the industrialist, Henry Clay Frick.
Katie McCammon, who directs the production and appears as Emma Goldman, does both admirably and with firm conviction.
Cosmo Merryweather is a believable Sasha Berkman. Dalrymple MacAlpin composed and performs the fine live music, as well as movingly portrays Fedya, Emma's housemate/lover/ally.
Another of Emma's lovers, Dr. Ben Reitman, is played by Anthony Lorenzo, exuding a street charm obviously attractive to Emma, who says she can think of nothing but him (a strange stance for someone who so firmly believes in freedom and selfhood). The other members of the cast nicely contribute their talents to the ensemble.
The simple set and props, designed by Pam Hodges, work well, although there are a lot of scene changes — while smoothly executed, the numerous shifts become a bit distracting. Hodges' period costumes contribute effectively to the authenticity of the era.
This is a play noteworthy for the history of its portrayed time and story of a radical woman and her entourage.
If you don't know much about Emma Goldman, or even if you do, you will learn interesting information about the lives, times and persecution of radical thinkers in the early 20th century and discover that many of their beliefs are still quite current.
See "Emma" at the Unchurch (a former church, now used for events), at 220 Breesee Place, off Hughes Road in Grass Valley, continuing only through Saturday.
Hindi Greenberg read a lot more about the many and varied politics — anarchism, socialism, fascism, communism — of the early 20th century while researching information for this review. And discovered that nothing really changes.
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