Originally published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
When Frank Loesser sat down to write Guys and Dolls more than fifty years ago, there was no war in Iraq, America had ample energy resources, and “twitter” was just something that birds did. But to read the musical now, it seems as if it could have been written yesterday. It was this crushing relevance that brought me to revive, deconstruct, and reimagine the musical to be the opening salvo of MindQuake Theatre’s third season.
What is man? Such is the question that all art should ask. Guys and Dolls posits answers: gambler, missionary, spunky airhead cabaret singer. It is in these shimmering reflections that we can find deeper utterances of our own contemporary visages… For onstage, are we really seeing three slick gamblers singing about horse racing, or are we in fact seeing the troubling diplomatic belligerence that led to the invasion of Iraq…? I propose the latter, and thus have staged the song in the war rooms of the White House and 10 Downing Street and rebuilt it as a dialog (conspiracy?) between George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The lyrics may as well be “I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, and the American and British public are too busy watching television to stop us.”
And what of the classic character Nathan Detroit? Directors are too often tempted to portray him as flat and simple, a good-hearted gambler trying to do his best despite his flaws. Not I! In Nathan, I see the very rending of the garments of society, thesturm und drang of a humanity in crisis… He is not one man, but a pitiful pastiche of globalism gone wrong. His refusal to marry Adelaide maps chillingly onto BP’s refusal to stop the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. You will notice in this production, Nathan Detroit is played by three actors representing China, Big Food, and America’s abandonment of manned space exploration, respectively. Watch carefully as each actor appears shorter throughout the arc of the story.
“But stop,” some will say, “how can that which is set in the past hold true to the present, which is so complicated, so advanced?” I ask such a skeptic to move out of the sucking glow of his/her telecommunication device… remove his/her deafening white mp3 ear buds… and watch my lips as I recite a few simple lines:“When you see a guy reach for clouds in the sky, you can bet that he’s doing it for some doll.” Sound familiar…? No…? Imagine… if you will, that the “guy” is man… Now imagine the “clouds in the sky” are not simple masses of looming precipitation-to-be, but the yearning (burning?) for all-powerful technology yielding immediate gratification. Then what is the “doll” you can “bet that he’s doing it for?” Simple: death. If it is not clear now, it will be when you see the gamblers dancing around Sky Masterson dressed as Mayan harbingers of the apocalypse with iPhones for faces.
In February of 1992, I studied abroad in Spain. I would have never known it then as I worked toward my pre-med degree, but Loesser’s siren song was calling my name. With every spoonful ofgazpacho, every whiff of air off the Mar Mediterraneo, every sight of an elderly senora with the questions, answers, and sadness of life embedded in her deep wrinkles, I was being called to something greater, something more meaningful than medicine. With this production of Guys and Dolls, I have at last found it. Some will say “sit down, you’re rocking the boat!” Nay, I say! I will not, and you must not either! Truth lies neither with the dancing gambler or singing missionary, but inside the soul…
I hope you find your spectatorship of this piece at least one iota as gratifying as my experience directing it. I can proudly declare this to be my greatest artistic achievement since my reimagining of Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk as a critical retelling of the housing bubble through the lens of the decline of printed media.
Thank you, and please be open-minded during the calls for audience participation.