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Monday, February 9, 2009

Thing 137: Ford's Theater

So...there's good news, and then there's bad news.

The good news is that the Ford's Theater renovation is complete, and it is beautiful. The lobby is light and open, with lots of glass and shiny grey and white tiling. There's a fancy gift shop where you can buy Abraham Lincoln bobbleheads and huge novelty pennies that cost $6 each. There's information on the walls about the history of the theater. Lincoln's great coat will be on display in the lobby shortly (though you can see his blood and the bullet that killed him here). And the theater itself is beautiful, with a beautiful ceiling, a broad and newly done stage and yes, comfortable seats. For those of you who had been to the old Ford's Theater, you'll know that comfortable seating is a huge upgrade.

And it is pretty remarkable to sit in that comfortable seat and look up at the box in which Lincoln was shot. The history is mighty and duly appreciated.

But now for the bad news...the play they're re-opening the theater with is really, really bad.

I was offered the chance to see a free preview of "The Heavens are Hung in Black" last week. In the spirit of my new year's resolutions, I went with it. And, like the lesson I learned with the Iranian film festival, when you indiscriminately do things that are free, sometimes they are no good at all.

Where to start? The show lasted three hours (with two intermissions) and had not a scrap of dramatic tension throughout. It told the story of the months between the death of one of Lincoln's sons and his issuing of the emancipation proclamation. There are interminable dream sequences in which Lincoln rather heavy-handedly debates whether or not to free the slaves with various historical figures, but all along we know exactly what he's going to do and so these dream sequences just feel like they're Art. Art with a capital "A" as in "I have something very important to say" (doesn't the best art often say something very important without announcing itself so loudly?).

The non-dream sequences benefited from very good acting. The cast overall, Mary Lincoln in particular, were all good, they just didn't have much to work with. The scenes with Lincoln, his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and his Secretary of State William Seward -- his team of rivals you may have heard something about -- were devoid of any sense of urgency or any aspect of, well, rivalry. And Lincoln, known for his intelligence and his bons mots, makes so many quips in the face of every possible situation that Act 2 feels an awful lot like an episode of "The West Wing: 1862."

There's also an extended scene in which Lincoln stumbles upon a group of actors rehearsing Shakespeare. This gives Lincoln an excuse to expound on Hamlet and how he is a tragic figure who spent too much time equivocating and ultimately died in the pursuit of truth and justice. My head hurts from all the hitting over it.

But perhaps the most offensive bit was at the end, with an overt shout-out to Barack Obama himself, a reference that could have been left unsaid. Because we are all pretty aware that Lincoln emancipated the slaves and now we have a black president. But thank you for drawing that line for us, we might have missed it otherwise.

Phew, I've had all that anger bottled up for a week now, and it feels good to let it go. I do encourage you to pop your head in and see the new digs, but do not stay for the show -- hopefully the next one will be better. And I promise that Thing 138 will be more fun. It features 100% more dancing, and that's a good start, right?