Red Emma and the Mad Monk
Co-created and written by Alexis Roblan
Co-created and directed by Katie Lindsay
Presented by Emma Orme at The Tank, NYC
August 16-September 1, 2018
With Twitter arguments, Russian propaganda, and political resistance figuring heavily, it would be difficult for comedic musical Red Emma and the Mad Monk to be more timely, even as its title characters hail from the nineteenth century. Co-created by writer Alexis Roblanand director Katie Lindsay and having debuted in June of 2017, Red Emma has made its way to The Tank in an invigorating production that seamlessly interweaves times and tones in an exploration of what it means, and what it could mean, to speak and act as a political subject.
Addison (Maybe Burke) is twelve, has a burgeoning political consciousness, a close relationship with her laptop, and a bedroom decorated with images including skulls, the Guy Fawkes mask, and Grigori Rasputin. In fact, Rasputin (Drita Kabashi) is the object of Addison's enthusiastic curiosity and admiration, and, having perhaps manifested from his Wikipedia page, her frequent conversational partner. However, the "Mad Monk" begins to have some competition in Addison's private pantheon as she becomes interested in learning more about polyamorous Jewish anarcho-communist Emma Goldman (Imani Pearl Williams), who was born in Russia in the same year as Rasputin, 1869, but emigrated to America as a teenager (and was deported in 1917). Also eventually crossing paths with Addison is a contemporary figure, Vladislav Surkov (Jonathan Randell Silver), a Russian politician and businessman who introduces himself as responsible for the rise of Vladimir Putin. Addison's interactions with these characters — a (reputed) hedonist and intimate member of the court of the last monarch of Russia, a die-hard revolutionary, and a master propagandist. — challenge her views of herself and how she interacts with the world, and push her, along with the audience, to ask, what sort of revolution do I want today?
Red Emma wastes no time in broaching these types of questions, opening with Louis Lingg (Fernando Gonzalez), an anarchist who martyred himself while awaiting execution in 1887, asking what exactly power, speech, and action are, especially for an individual within the context of the state. Lingg had been convicted in relation to the 1886 Haymarket massacre in Chicago, charged with a bombing in response to police having killed workers at a labor rally. This opening resonates with the play's later engagement with the 1892 Homestead massacre, which pitted striking steelworkers against private Pinkerton agents and involved an assassination attempt by Sasha Berkman, fellow anarchist and sexual partner of Emma Goldman; the juxtaposition of the two events is emphasized by Gonzalez playing Berkman as well. Via the exploits of Lingg and Berkman, and the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, Red Emma interrogates whether fatal violence is an acceptablemeans of social change: again, what kind of revolution do you want? Are threats (including implied threats; including those made on Twitter) acceptable? And does it matter that killing a single person is unlikely to bring down an entire system? Another lover of Goldman's, Modest Stein (also Silver, in a much less malevolent role), a painter who sets up a household with Goldman and Berkman, wonders what place is left for art in a life dedicated to the revolution, and is the most comfortable of the triad with the argument that revolution can be funded by participating in the same system that it is meant to overthrow — say, by opening an ice cream shop to pay one's anarchist rent. Red Emma acknowledges that this is not a new dilemma, as it acknowledges that while radical non-monogamy can indeed be a revolutionary tool, it too is far from new: every generation, it posits, has desired and worked towards greater freedom, just as the fear of change in every generation has functioned as an obstacle to that work.
The production presents these weighty issues with a light touch, balancing the melancholy that is sometimes foregrounded with humor and heart. Clips from televised news occasionally mark time in the 2017 setting, and there are some memorable visual moments, including a very entertaining shadow puppet play and a more discomforting scene in which Surkov puppeteers Rasputin from his laptop — an excellent and effective image for the power that controlling a narrative can have. The songs, written by Teresa Lotz and performed in stripped-down fashion, the singers accompanied by a solo piano or acoustic guitar, advance and develop plot and character while being catchy and fun; and the cast are never less than compelling. Silver, for instance, is equally strong as both the unguarded Stein and the subtly intimidating Surkov, and Burke captures not only Addison's adolescent mannerisms but also her internal conflicts and changes, and reminds the audience that, yes, the kids ARE alright. Gonzalez and Williams are earnest as Berkman and Goldman, but construct versions of revolutionary icons that are more than just the sum of their ideas; their initial meeting, for example, is that of two people sharing a heated admixture of radical ideals and sexual desire. Kabashi, whose dark duster is worn over a pink corset and fishnets that Berkman would no doubt call decadent, gives her glittery, captivating Rasputin some convincing humanity beneath his often outsized, consistently very funny (self-)presentation, which is ultimately deconstructed.
Words, Surkov argues in the play, gain or lose power depending on the political context in which they are used, especially if they may be a matter of life or death. Public and historical figures can be complicated (Rasputin is one example; Asia Argento might be another), and controlling the representation or mythologization of these figures, like controlling stories more generally, can be a means to power, but so, the play points out, can dissension, lack of narrative, and chaos. Happily for audiences, Red Emma and the Mad Monk constructs an entertaining and energizing narrative of its own.