Waterwell's Delightfully Irreverent
Marco Millions (based on lies). Waterwell, Lion at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, New York, NY. August 4-26, 2006.
Before attending Waterwell's adaptation of Marco Millions, Eugene O'Neill's expressionistic satire of Western greed, I decided to reread the original text. Just as I suspected. The play is so complex in its scene changes, so demanding of its set and costume designers, so weighed down by its gigantic cast (O'Neill lists 31 characters, along with "People of Persia, India, Mongolia, Cathay, courtiers, nobles, ladies, wives, warriors of Kublai's court, musicians, dancers, Chorus of mourners"), so convoluted in its mixture of genres--dialogue, music, poetry, chanting, etc.--and so hilarious and tragic at the same time, I was doubtful it could be faithfully staged at $35 a ticket. I was right--it wasn't. Instead, the hour and a half production (with no intermission) was performed on a bare stage with only five actors dressed simply in modern suits or simple frocks, who seemingly adlib their way through a truncated script. One rarely thinks, however, of an O'Neill play as a fun experience. Not even his oft-revived comedy Ah, Wilderness! is fun, exactly. With this production--which is fun, fun, fun--I think most O'Neillians would agree that Waterwell has accomplished something truly exceptional.
Marco Millions recounts the legendary journey of the 13th-century Italian trader Marco Polo who destructively imposes Western materialist values across the Far and Middle East with the goal of returning home a millionaire. Waterwell adds the parenthetical subtitle "based on lies," a cue that the historical figure Marco Polo, upon whose autobiography the play is based, was at best a bold-faced liar, but at worst, the author of a wish-fulfillment fantasy that aroused the West's collectively acquisitive mind. At one point the impresario of the group, Kevin Townley, who plays the majority of the minor roles and acts as a kind of master of ceremonies, gives the audience a history lesson to bring the point home: Polo's autobiography The Travels of Marco Polo, first called "The Million," was actually written by the romance writer Rusticello da Pisa, and Polo's reports of dog-faced natives, unicorns, and parakeets lifting elephants to the sky is pretty clear evidence that the Venetian's account was bogus. Arian Moayed--who plays a perfectly boyish, desperately naïve Marco--steps out of character to protest: "Next you're going to say that my favorite book [James Frey's] A Million Little Pieces is a lie too!"
Waterwell submits in their program notes that "O'Neill's play was born out of his reaction to the American post-war boom of the 1920s, a time of capitalist triumph and commercial imperialism. It was the time, O'Neill thought, to recognize that the majority of the world didn't necessarily embrace The American Way. He saw history repeating itself…" But to my mind, this veneration for O'Neill's social intuitiveness is undercut by the subtitle's alternate reference--the production itself, as opposed to the original text. The "lies" in question subtly indicate the group's mocking bastardization, send-up really, of much of the original's flaws. Just before Act 2, Scene 3, in which O'Neill interposed a series of bizarre poetry chants while Marco transports the Cathay princess Kukachin to Persia, Townley again drops out of character to explain the weird turn in the play. He halts the action, stands downstage, and makes a brief tongue-in-cheek speech in the role of the creator: "Hello. I'm Eugene O'Neill. I just came by to say these kids are doing a terrific job. When I wrote this in 1926, this is exactly what I had in mind." Townley continues, still playing O'Neill, that the only thing harder than working as a merchant mariner (as O'Neill did) is performing the same show night after night; and the only thing more difficult than that is "writing it, especially transitions." The group then enacts an impromptu, self-described "poetry slam" with pseudo-intellectual posturing about exploring the "dark and intricate corridors of our souls"--another dig at the often ponderous soul-searching one finds throughout the O'Neill canon. (An especially painful moment in O'Neill's career was the unintentional guffaws from the audience that Welded, saturated as it is in ponderous soul-searching, elicited at its premiere.) Then they deliver a round of pretentious doggerel, though Princess Kukachin's stays on topic. Rodney Gardiner's contains outrageous homosexual puns like, "I wouldn't do it for all the seamen on the poop deck." After a bit, Townley brings it back around by hilariously announcing that "Arian Moayed will now perform a scene from Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions."
The production overflows with such asides, along with others correcting each other's pronunciation (contemplative or contemplative? Moayed's pretty sure it's the first), intentionally bad singing, loosely-timed vaudevillian choreography, anachronistic references, and bawdy jokes about all the nations of the world "unloading their wares into her [Venice's] grand canal." They apologize for offensive language with the excuse that the year 1295 "was not the height of political correctness." Indeed, when Marco's uncle Maffeo--splendidly performed by straight man Tom Ridgeley, who also directed the production--first guides his nephew through many nations of the East, he refers to, and I'm only slightly paraphrasing here, towel-headed, camel-fucking, Jew-hating Arabs and smelly, cow-fucking, oversexed Indians. This grotesque display of Western ethnocentrism is certainly true to O'Neill's acerbic script, though his actual language takes up a relatively small percentage of the dialogue. They may go a little overboard when describing chopsticks as "retarded" compared to forks, then having Townley take up the role as a mentally retarded lackey whose outbursts Marco subdues by plying him with marshmallows during a press conference. I'll leave the judgment of that gag's appropriateness to parents of the mentally disabled.
Waterwell doesn't entirely sacrifice drama for belly laughs, however. Lauren Cregor's original music, played live by a fine young jazz ensemble roosted on a precarious-looking platform upstage, enables the troupe to present the play's more tragic moments straight. One striking example is the singing to music of Princess Kukachin's letter from Persia declaring her heartbreak after losing Marco to his Venetian fiancée Donata. Once Kukachin's body arrives back to Cathay in a casket draped with a white pall, Rodney Gardiner, as the grief-stricken Chinese emperor Kublai Kaan, Kukachin's grandfather, performs a sublime dirge while the others dolefully weep in chorus, all of which beautifully captures the heart-rending loss of the beloved princess. The love scenes between Marco and Donata (his fiancée in Venice played by the aptly-named Hanna Cheek, as in "cheeky") and Marco and Kukachin (also played by Cheek) are brilliantly done. Both cast members stand apart, downstage right and left respectively, and face the audience. In the scene when the preadolescent Donata vows to stay true to Marco until his return, Cheek and Moayed perform an easy but delightful trick to accentuate the illusion that they face one another, in which Donata proffers a gold medallion to Marco, who then releases it from his own hand. The scene when Kukachin attempts to prod the practical-minded "man of action" Marco to acknowledge her love is equally well-done. The play concludes with a cabaret number in which Marco and his uncle return home with their "millions" and shower the guests at their homecoming banquet with coins and cash while Kublai Kaan looks on in disgust through a magic crystal. The "money" song consists solely of every imaginable intonation of the word and includes a self-consciously stupid rendering of the theme song to Donald Trump's reality show The Apprentice.
As the title suggests, confronting the excessive materialism of the Western world is the play's predominant theme, one compounded by the fact that Marco Millions tackles "head on," as Waterwell points out in the program notes, "questions of class and race that are as important now as they were in 1928 . . . or 1271." Part of Waterwell's mission statement is that the group be "responsive to the events affecting the world at large." By their choice they, and world events, have successfully proven O'Neill scholar Travis Bogard utterly wrong when he wrote dismissively of the work as "of its period, and it will remain so. Its ironic theme…is buried too deeply in time for it to emerge as a play of substance" (260). Another somewhat less obvious theme is borne out in the final scene when Kublai Kaan's General Bayan suggests they get rich by invading Europe. Kublai responds with grim irony: "You have already conquered the West, I think," he says, but then demonstrates his own absorption of Western greed by ordering an invasion of Japan in order to corner the silk market.
In the intimate seating of the Lion theatre, I happened to be seated next to an Israeli woman from Haifa, then under siege by Hezbollah rockets, who had just arrived to the U.S. with her family. They came to New York in large part to flee the Israeli conflict with Lebanon, a war decidedly emboldened by Western meddling in the Middle East. That afternoon, Friday, August 11th, the Israelis had just escalated the month-long assault on southern Lebanon, and before the show she told me that the distinction between what was then taking place and the previous war with Hezbollah is that this time "it's global." After the actors took their well-deserved bows, she clutched my arm and exclaimed with delight, "they pulled it off! They called themselves 'kids,' and they really are, but they pulled it off!" Seeking respite from a nightmarish geopolitical situation, she happened to find it at the Lion that night. But as funny as Marco Millions can be, and as extremely entertaining (if often juvenile) as this production truly is, the play is scarcely, at bottom, an evasion from the horrors igniting across the Middle East. This is particularly true when we take into account the West's profiteering "men of action." Our latter-day Marco Polos have precipitated a chain reaction of wars among vastly foreign cultures to their own; and like the fabled 13th-century adventurer, our leaders are just as arrogant as their early progenitor, indelibly interfering with things they don't understand, and in regions where they don't belong. If there's any question to the falsity of Bogard's assertion about Marco Millions' historical obsolescence, consider the opening of Act 1, Scene 3: As Maffeo mulls over their business prospects in the Middle East, he reads from the notes of their previous voyage East that says, "there's one kingdom called Mosul and in it a district of Baku where there's a great fountain of oil. There's a growing demand for it (then speaking) Make a mental note of that" (401).
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
O'Neill, Eugene. Marco Millions. Complete Plays 1920-1931. Ed. Travis Bogard. Vol. 2. New York: Library of America, 1988: 379-467.
Robert M. Dowling is an Assistant Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University where he teaches, among other courses, a graduate-level seminar on Eugene O'Neill. He is currently under contract with Facts on File for his next book project, Critical Companion to Eugene O'Neill: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, which should appear in late 2007.
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