The History of the World
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
January 7, 2012
We can change history now!
With a title audacious enough to warrant a parody film of a similar title, The Living Theatre's newest production matches that boldness with its vision. Who are you in history? In The History of the World, written and directed by Judith Malina, that question is addressed by having the audience participate in significant historical events, flowing between being guided by the actors from scene to scene and directly creating the action. This dynamically reveals how, by watching the current historical moment, we can forget we are a part of it with the genuine capacity to take action.
But what sort of action? We are offered the prospect of non-violent revolution, after which "there will be no contradiction between total autonomy and total sociability." In this history, we see a pattern of submission as an act of resistance by the wisest among us, who are always killed.
A beautiful beginning: audience members close their eyes, and are instructed by the epic maternal voice of Sheila Dabney to recall being an infant. "Don't imagine, remember." That's when our history began. Then eyes open, and my guide through the play, Diana Oh, put my hand on her heart. Starting off with such tenderness made me feel well taken care of on the journey. In addition to Dabney, although the entire ensemble tells the story, a lot of the narration is done by Tom Walker. Dabney is also the production's music director and composer.
Soon, there is a scene of cave men raping cave women. One woman refuses to submit to violence, and one man refuses to continue the violence. These are the exceptional men and women, we are told. That same actor, Jay Dobkin, then becomes Socrates. He is sentenced to death for denying the gods of the city and corrupting the youth. Socrates accepts the sentence, but does not say why he submits. We are told in a whisper by the guides when he enters, that Dobkin is now Jesus. His cry from the cross "they know not what they do" is echoed throughout the remainder of the production.
Eventually the audience developed a sense of how to move with each other in relation to the action just by the movement of the crowd overall, although the actors would still initiate the move. The guide was a transitional necessity for the audience to become comfortable with autonomy in the theatrical space.
History moves on, and we are right there with it. We create religious wars, make the sounds of an airplane as Amelia Earhart crosses the Atlantic, surround Soraya Broukhim as Joan of Arc burning at the stake, use a spinning wheel with Gandhi. Then we see Mars, god of war, naked with a helmet, sword, and shield, overpowered by Venus, Love, a group of naked women. In this instance as elsewhere, Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David's work is often directly represented.
Malina's direction, coordinating movement of an entire audience through space with the action and transitioning that audience towards a final free improvisation that models the functioning of an ideal society, could not deserve higher praise.
It ends gloriously, with the whole group's arms around each other in a circle, singing out for a number of minutes, our pitches harmonizing, then moving to dissonance, then moving through the dissonance into a new harmony, the individual voices merging into a constant, powerful, unified sound, that slowly fades off, allowing the whole group to decide how and when the show ends.
Who are you in history?