Year One of the Empire
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 3, 2008
Year One of the Empire, the current show at Metropolitan Playhouse, is essential viewing for anyone interested in how our country has come to be where it is in 2008. In this regard it exemplifies Metropolitan's mission to explore America today by looking at drama of, or about, our collective past. This documentary play by Elinor Fuchs and Joyce Antler examines an episode in U.S. history that has mostly remained hidden: our attempt to conquer and subjugate the Philippine Islands following the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Fuchs and Antler use a variety of primary sources—from newspaper reports to Senate debates, from War Department dispatches to personal letters and memoirs—to tell the story of how the Americans invaded the Philippines and then fought a long, catastrophic, tortuous war to try to subdue them. In a program note, we learn that some 4,000 American and 50,000 Filipino soldiers were killed during the five years of the war, and another quarter of a million Filipinos died during that period from starvation or disease. Much of the play focuses on the politicians responsible for this debacle: President William McKinley, a Republican unabashedly in the service of Big Business who seems to have personally deplored the war but did nothing to keep it from happening; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who was the leader of the imperialists in Congress, urging McKinley not only to go to war with Spain (ostensibly to boost the cause of Cuba, struggling to end its four centuries as a Spanish colony) but to take advantage of the opportunity such a war would yield America to take possession not only of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean but also Guam and the Philippines, half a world away in the Pacific; and Theodore Roosevelt, the rabble-rousing, fame-and-adventure-seeking hero who started out as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under McKinley, resigned to lead his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill to victory and celebrity, got nominated as McKinley's Vice President in 1900, and then became President in 1901 after McKinley's assassination.
Lodge is depicted here as pushing for the war very straightforwardly to advance the United States's commercial interest; Roosevelt is shown to be more subtle in his strategizing and posturing, turning himself into a national hero (admittedly with some degree of sacrifice) to advance his own career. Both feel very modern; so, sadly, does the hypocritical McKinley. Metropolitan has not mounted this particular play at this particular moment for nothing.
But Fuchs and Antler do not confine themselves to just a few leading figures of the period. Their play explores the War in The Philippines through the eyes of many Americans, including senators on both sides of the issue, politicos manipulating events behind the scenes, members of the military, and many noteworthy Americans who observed and, often, opposed the War quite vocally, among them Andrew Carnegie, Carl Schurz, and, perhaps most efficaciously, Mr. Dooley.
The investigation of possible abuses (war crimes?) during the conquest of The Philippines is the focus of the play's final act, and it feels eerily familiar in terms of what was perpetrated and how swiftly and baldly things were covered up.
Year One of the Empire isn't just weighty and contemplative: it's rousing good drama. Director Alex Roe has done a splendid job realizing this play, with 11 skillful actors playing many dozen different roles. The excellent costumes—generally a basic ensemble for each player, carefully augmented by accessories appropriate to each character he or she undertakes—are by Megan Ann Richardson. The equally effective unit set (uncredited in the program) features a two-level piece across the rear of the stage that serves as parapet and balcony as well as just providing additional space to play out the sprawling action.
Among the cast there are several particularly noteworthy players. Mikel Sarah Lambert provides a much-needed voice of conscience as one of the Senate opposition leaders, George Frisbie Hoar. Michael Hardart is excellent as Theodore Roosevelt, conjuring his iconic identity in look and posture while not shying away from those characteristics that make him less attractive than history usually remembers him. Michael Durkin is terrific as McKinley and especially as that wise old Irish barkeep/philosopher Mr. Dooley. J. M. McDonough plays a number of parts effectively, perhaps most memorably Andrew Carnegie. And David Patrick Ford, who is coolly slick as Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge (one of Lodge's allies), also gets to share his beautiful singing voice at several points in the play, from a stirring a cappella rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" that opens the show to a subdued and pointed "America the Beautiful" at the finale.
Metropolitan Playhouse is to be commended for giving this worthy and fascinating play its belated New York debut (it was written in response to the War in Vietnam, more than two decades ago). Year One of the Empire is the best kind of documentary theatre, keeping us compelled and engaged throughout and providing lots of food for thought for afterwards.