A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
Karl Marx occupies a strange space in the American mindset, the embodiment of a pink-highlighted sidebar in a history textbook with a name like Alternative Perspectives. He seems nagging, foreign, boring, vaguely distasteful (we enjoy our Capitalism a whole bunch). We all understand that The Communist Manifesto and and Das Kapital are Very Important but at the same time don’t feel like being lectured from nearly two hundred years beyond the grave on the sinister implications of our Toyota Corollas. Marx irritates me because I’m lazy and complacent, and I guess that’s what the fat cats count on, right?
It is to Phil Gallagher’s and director Sherrionne Brown’s credit, then, that the version of Howard Zinn’s Marx in Soho currently playing at Spotlighters is the opposite of dusty or tedious. Based on the premise that Karl Marx has come back from the afterlife to “clear his name”, Soho is a one-person show that invokes the ghosts of the famous man’s past so vividly that they appear to stand there with him: his acerbically loving wife Jenny, precocious daughter Eleanor, hot-blooded peer Mikhail Bakunin. Gallagher brings a Marx to the stage that is part misunderstood revolutionary firebrand, part fussy, priggish Friedrich Bhaer, and part the kind of charming uncle you want to sit next to at Thanksgiving (the one who sends you into hilarity with his mutterings on your father’s unfortunate Trump support). He’s owlish, twinkly, and grumpy, twirling anecdotes that range from cozy (his wife sitting at the table transcribing his terrible handwriting) to fucking harrowing (the death of many of his children).
The point is that Gallagher and Brown use Zinn’s (at times furious, at times poignant, at times hilarious) script as a paper bag and the performance as a tool to breathe warmth into it, fill it up, almost effortlessly. Gallagher’s range is impressive and, I am absolutely sure, the product of intense study. Marx the material is hefty, difficult, but Gallagher and Brown are much more interested in Marx the man. They gently guide us in making the connections between the personal and the political, so to speak. I like the way that Gallagher goes from angry, a little embarrassed for the state of our soshul meeedia, to bursting with a father’s pride at the brilliance of his daughter, to screaming for us to get up off our fat fucking asses and do something. It feels real, current, even funny, not forced or historical re-enactmentish, and that is crucial to keeping our attention for an hour and forty run time. I wish that Brown would have pushed harder on the darker parts of the Marx legacy for balance, the justification exists in the script (for instance, Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” has largely been taken by scholars and commentators as antisemetic, which Zinn touches on) but she commits to the Grandpa Commie thing early on, which makes it difficult to truly explore some of these heavier implications.
Tech here is limited and a bit barren, with the set (design also by Brown) confined to some portraits hung on the wall, a desk and a couple of chairs. Lighting from Fuzz Roark is subtle and costume by Andrew Malone gets the job done and looks appropriately tatty. On the whole, it appears that the design was scaled wayyyy back, which is fine by me: I think we’re sort of supposed to be alone with Marx in the dark for awhile.
BOTTOM LINE: Marx in Soho is a beautiful thing: an opportunity for a great actor and thoughtful director to do a deep dive on a juicy, controversial figure. Both Marxist text and one man shows can be boring, but this is proof that they don’t have to be. You’ll be surprised at how engaged and into it you’ll be.
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