“The Conspirator”–Is Anyone Listening?

“The Conspirator” opens with a gripping Civil War battle scene and treats us to incredibly imaginative camera angles, shot in sepia tones to time-travel cinematically to the late 1860’s.

This is a story that sits underneath a story we all know– the history-book narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theater. What few of us know is the untold story– of Mary Surratt, (played by Robin Wright), a Southern middle-aged widow who ran the boarding house where Booth and five other conspirators plotted to either kidnap (an important distinction in the movie) or murder not only Abraham Lincoln, but also the vice president (Andrew Johnson), the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of War. Their seditious act was intended to overthrow the government and reinstate the southern states’ hegemony.

Frederick Aiken (superbly played by James McAvoy), is a Union soldier recently recovered from near-fatal wounds at the battle of Appomattox. He is given the insurmountable task of defending Mary Surratt, a civilian, in a trial before a military tribunal, instead of in a civil trial before her peers. Aiken’s revulsion at defending Surratt is palpable. His friends and fiancée’s revulsion is even stronger.

As her defense attorney, Aiken gradually realizes that a military court is trampling Surratt’s rights in order to draw out her son, John, who has fled the state. The viewer does not know whether Surratt is guilty or not, but the evidence is spuriously argued in what is undoubtedly a kangaroo court, and she is unjustly dealt with.

Mary Surratt became the first white female executed under Federal jurisdiction and was photographed in a white hood hanging from a noose alongside her three co-conspirators. This is a tour-de-force courtroom drama with lessons about the U.S. constitution in a time of national fear and war, lessons yet to be learned today. “In times of war, the law falls silent,” one of the military tribunal commissioners, states matter-of-factly. This film is about the unconstitutional acts Americans do when feeling collectively frightened.

I was surprised to find so many critics sitting on the fence on this one. The New York Times called it a “well-meaning, misbegotten movie”. Other critics considered the director, Robert Redford’s treatment of Surratt’s trial heavy handed, undoubtedly due to the parallels the viewer draws between the fear and vengeance of the post-Civil War days and the Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib events of our current political situation. The iconic canvas bags worn over the heads of the conspirators in the film cannot but remind the viewer of the grim photos of Abu Ghraib. The porous border between travesties of justice from the past and those of the present seems to have irked some of the critics.

Robert Redford, as director, has focused on the tragic deceptions people commit in order to save themselves. He has chosen his cast wisely. Robin Wright is the vulnerable pallid-faced prisoner, stoic and fiercely loyal to her son and daughter. The actress is virtually unrecognizable, practically silent throughout, but riveting in conveying subtle expressions weighed down by the burden of grief and bewilderment. At the heart of “The Conspirator,” is the interface between fear and injustice, the crushing of human rights. Who really is the conspirator and who is listening?

“The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q”–Nothing is Forever

While visiting New York City last week my husband and I had the immense pleasure of seeing two absolutely hilarious musicals, “The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q”, the former premiering on Broadway last March,   the latter still enjoying a seven-year run.

“The Book of Mormon” is the hottest play on Broadway right now.  Nominated for 14 Tony awards–one short of the record, it is irreverent, over-the-top, and politically incorrect as only the creators of “South Park”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, can be.  Yet “The Book of Mormon” is absolutely astonishing for its satire, music, and singing.  Described as “God’s favorite musical,” this show from the co-composer/lyricist of “Avenue Q” features a pair of incompatible Mormon missionary recruits who are sent to Uganda, with a  track record of no converts.   In the course of the show, the two young Mormons gain more insight into themselves as they realize the good nature of the AIDS-plagued, poverty-stricken Ugandan villagers and the deception they are propagating.  Complex moral lessons are sandwiched between outrageously scatological dialogue and raunchy costumes.  If you can laugh at religion’s dark side without feeling wounded, at stereotypes that could be construed as offensive (but no one is exempted), and memorable lyrics in the songs “Turn It Off”, “Man Up”, and “I Believe”, you will find this subversive Broadway show to be amazing.  Its primary comic plot device is the absurdity of religion when it divides and alienates, instead of uniting. Through humor, incredible lyrics, and voices powerful beyond belief, this controversial, heart-stopping musical is a wonder. Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, the two brilliant young performers playing zealous missionaries, and Nikki James as the young Ugandan woman fervently trying to be open to their missionary message, have mesmerizing, crystal clear voices that are a delight to the ear.  To say more would be to spoil this winner from the  “South Park” creators!

Two days after seeing “The Book of Mormon”, we saw “Avenue Q”, the long-running 2004 Tony award winner, at a small Off-Broadway theater, the New World Stage, for a more intimate performance. Laugh-out-loud funny, this seven year-old musical is far from dated, except perhaps for the Gary Coleman character. “Avenue Q” tells the story of a recent college grad named Princeton who moves into a rundown New York apartment on Avenue Q.  Without the prospects of a job in the near future, (how timely is that?)   Princeton meets Kate (the girl next door), Rod (the Republican), Trekkie (the internet porn surfer), Lucy the Slut , and other furry characters, all modeled after Sesame Street puppets.

The set design is also straight out of Sesame Street, with the characters sitting on the front stoop singing their tales of woe.  Uniquely designed rooms resembling a large doll house add to the reality/fantasy divide underscored by each actor who holds a Sesame Street-style puppet, manipulating the puppet’s mouth while singing or reciting dialogue.  The dramatic convention is highly original and plays to the major theme: young adults who can’t quite believe they’ve grown up.  They’re no longer  on Sesame Street.

When I saw these two musicals within days of each other, I couldn’t separate them. They felt like two sides of the same story:  Bright-eyed young people hoping for success as defined by their dreams but utterly stunned that their prospects are not what they thought they would be.  In “Avenue Q” the songs “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “Schadenfreude” say it all.  The lyrics are mind-blowing for capturing the time of youth through the eyes of this decade!  Puppets make the real world seem like fantasy.  In “The Book of Mormon”, the animation genius of Trey Parker and Matt Stone comes to life on stage with human characters in the familiar dialogue we associate with “South Park”.  One musical mirrors the other, not surprisingly, since the composer for both musicals is Robert Lopez, and the original director of “The Book of Mormon”, Jason Moore, was the award-winning director of “Avenue Q”.  But the similarity of themes in both musicals can be felt viscerally.  “Avenue Q” just left San Francisco, but it may be brought back by popular demand.   I hope you can see both of these musical spectacles!

“Road Trip”–a short story

My short  story “Road Trip” has just been released in the Spring 2011 issue of  Calliope,   the official publication of the Writers’ Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd. This is a condensed portion of a chapter from my work-in-progress, a novel entitled Things Unsaid.  I really enjoyed writing this “flash fiction” story and hope you enjoy reading it!