Monday, June 3, 2019

Arthur Miller's rarely performed play, The Archbishop's Ceiling, goes behind a 1970s "iron curtain" to reveal control of information & writers.



The Archbishop's Ceiling by Arthur Miller, presented by Regeneration Theatre, is a play rarely done and this was the first New York production.  I thought I knew Miller's work but never heard of this  play set in the 1970's in an unnamed Eastern European country, where government controls  information and the freedom of writers.  In this behind the "Iron Curtain" drama, Miller, who lived through the McCarthy era, had insights into the clash between governments' need to control information and writers' need for free speech. This reverberates in 2019's chaotic "fake news" environment. Our former Cold War enemy's divide and conquer tactics, that influenced our 2016 elections, is a propaganda model used in the former soviet bloc and now imported abroad. History does repeat itself, though never in the same form.

Miller's play opens with Adrian and Maya having drinks in an elegant high ceilinged room in a bygone Imperial style. Maya (Kristen Gehling) is flirtatious but chooses her English carefully. They have a sexual history. Adrian (Levi Morger) is a famous American journalist she hasn't seen n years. Why now, she probes, though he's more interested in her relationship with Marcus (John Spano), who has the apartment. Are they just associates, business partners or more? It's a sparring match less about sex than information and the stakes are high.

The Archbishop's Ceiling  precedes the seismic shifts in political, economic and later information dissemination policies that began with Perestroika (1979) and Glasnost (1985).This is in the future  but Adrian, a Vietnam War era journalist (ended 1975) is a catalyst in this play. He remembers Marcus' apartment, as a meeting place for writers and knows that many were compromised afterward. He's also aware that Marcus enjoys privileges that indicate his "influence." with officials.  Is Maya also corrupt, selling out writers to advance herself, a realist working within the system, or simply a poet who likes to help writers?

When Adrian provokes her, suggesting he's writing a book about her and Marcus, Maya questions his purpose. In his work he pleases publishers and audiences, who want what "truth" he's selling. But does his freedom mean he's ignorant of consequences? Adrien's clear, freedom from government control is not negotiable. She says that Adrien doesn't understand anything

This is a multi-layered story but under the direction of Barnaby Edwards, who also produced, it's lucid. The high ceiling of the writers' club has limits; "bugs" that record voices for the authorities to review. Even Adrien with his foreign V.I.P. status, has limits. His words can cost him access or  jeopardize writers. Information is used to censor writers; punished with invisibility; loss of  the ability to write, publish, travel abroad, employment and education for their families, housing, and incarceration. Once the "bugs" are admitted (and also denied), action is deftly choreographed, as Adrian, Maya, Marcus, take others outside to discuss what is really going on.

Adrian, played astutely by Levi Morger, is a nervous mix of seasoned journalist and naive foreigner.  When his friend Sigmund (Michael Meth), a dissident writer, tells Adrian his book has been stolen by the police, he is  shocked police would go so far. Meth's pitch perfect as the "great writer," devestated at the loss; an investment of years of his life. Famous abroad and revered by his countrymen, Sigmund is officially nonexistent. Meth's sincerity and despair are poignant and believable.

His opposite, sophisticated Marcus, is ironically aware that the dissident, also a friend, is a true genius. Though an officially sanctioned writer, Marcus knows he's not in the same class. Spano makes him fascinating, as he switches masks. He's a supporter of writers, yet rep of the authorities. He's also a lover, who brings home from his travels abroad a "prize," a sexy Danish woman (Jessica Carollo), he expects to bed  He is also a "fixer" with an offer for Sigmund to recover his book Will Sigmund take it or Adrian's offer of comfortable American exile?  Prison is another choice.

Maya, in Kristen Gehling's surprising turnabout, shows it little matters how Adrian labels her. She's a patriot, concerned with saving her country's genius. Adrian's post Nam journalist, also wants to rescue Sigmund from government control. Are these two fellow-travellers? Miller's American writer is both a would-be savior and a man aware of his privilege and shortcomings. In The Archbishop's Ceiling Levi Morger's interpretation reveals self-doubt beneath his entitled pragmatism

The play questions characters' and audience assumptions. Can journalistic truth exist when the form requires simplifying complex reality? For instance, Marcus' luxurious life is based on accommodating those in power but he helps writers survive, can Adrien sell that story?  When corruption is commonly accepted, are truth and integrity threats to that order?  As the N.R.A. outspends arms control reforms, despite ongoing massacres in our schools and the testimony of victims. In 2019 we might ask how can truth and integrity have an affect on that order?

Arthur Miller's plays extoll the importance of freedom of speech but recognize the ability of power and greed to corrupt values. These plays respect human persistence, when faced with oppression. They are important, especially in our America, when universal values are routinely violated by the powerful for commercial or political advantage. The "new normal" is a cynical name for getting used to the abuse of power. I an glad there is a revival of interest in Miller's plays. It's great this one has been done now. I also would like to see Remarque's "Full Circle" some time soon.

The cast in Regeneration's production were all excellent. In some ways the hardest role may be Irina, the Danish musician Marcus brings home, thinking his apartment empty. She only speaks German and is at a loss about what is happening. Jessica Carollo's Irina reflected the high emotion in the room. She reacted to discussions, switching her position or expression. With varying difficulty, she managed her boredom and impatience, waiting for her lover's attentions. Loved her acceptance of confusion and conflict she couldn't understand. I feel her pain.

S.W.