Berkeley Repertory Theatre's premiere last week of the much-anticipated world premiere of the docudrama "The People's Temple" once again raises the question of how well live theater can deal with complex, emotionally charged events like the rise and destruction of the Rev. Jim Jones experiment in communal living.
Judicial scholars like to say that great cases involving vital national issues usually don't make good law. The same kind of warning probably applies to theater. Huge, earth-shaking events like the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War, the stock market crash of 1929 and our fateful intervention in Vietnam don't readily accommodate to the limited resources of a compact stage inhabited by a small group of actors; better to leave them to the more expansive (and flexible) media of fiction and film. Closely observed intimate relationships have always been theater's bread and butter.
Over the past few decades, however, producers have increasingly turned to docudrama as a way of offering a larger canvas. The theory is that gathering together the testimonies and voices of people who were actually involved will create a kind of pointillistic dramatic style that is capable not only of holding an audience's attention, but also of providing new insights on the subject. Sometimes it works beautifully, as with BRT's ringing success with "The Laramie Project" (an inquiry into the gruesome hate killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard) a few seasons back.
Sometimes it fails to deliver, as happened recently when the American premiere of "Guantanamo" at San Francisco's Brava Theater Center, unable to live up to its advance hype, was forced to close a week early.
Unfortunately, although several of "Laramie's" artistic collaborators, including author Leigh Fondakowski (who also directs) and lead writer Greg Pierotti, worked on "People's Temple" and the new project had the support of David Dower's Z Space, a San Francisco theater that specializes in play development, the finished product suffers from many of the same deficiencies that sank "Guantanamo."
In the latter, the one thing most ticket buyers were most interested in - how these prisoners, held without charge and isolated for years from family, friends and lawyers, were able to survive constant, often brutal interrogation - was virtually ignored. In "People's Temple," despite more than three years of research, interviews and other preparation, practically no light is shed on the question of why Jim Jones' followers so easily accepted his sexual excesses, financial demands, decision to move en masse to Guyana and the final order to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. How did this man penetrate so deeply into the consciousness of so many disparate individuals that he deprived them even of that most primordial of all instincts: the will to live?
Perhaps there is no definitive answer, but there must have been some intriguing speculations by the interviewees. Those who spent three-plus years conducting research and shaping the results into a script must have formed their own opinions. Instead, we are presented with a series of mostly bland testimonials that, yes, the events took place (a fact of which we were already aware) and they had some extremely tragic results (ditto).
To top it off, this lengthy exercise in question-begging is verbally and musically capped by the feel-good message that these were just innocent folks, not cultists, who shouldn't be blamed for putting too much trust in their leader. After all, the suggestion goes, it could happen to anyone. Really?
Even that rather ingenuous point of view would have packed more dramatic punch if Jim Jones were the clearly defined protagonist. At least we would have had a charismatic villain to blame it all on. But the BRT team's approach is symbolized by Sarah Lambert's scenic design, which features a series of wheeled metal shelf structures containing cardboard boxes filled with artifacts (clothes, personal items) from Jonestown's 918 dead.
As the story unfolds, a whole range of characters are brought to life - sometimes with great poignancy, as with James Carpenter and Lauren Klein as parents who continue to mourn (and puzzle about) the loss of their two daughters. Others, such as veteran actor Robert Ernst, are equally impressive in a variety of roles, including San Mateo Congressman Leo Ryan, who, in one of the play's most gripping scenes, was assassinated on the Guyana tarmac as he attempted to liberate a group of Jonestown defectors.
Impressive as this work is, the inescapable truth is that "People's Temple" lacks a center. Confusingly played by both Carpenter and John McAdams as just one among their many mini-portraits, Jones makes brief appearances, a few recordings of his voice are heard, but he remains a shadowy presence. At the same time, everyone from powerful politicians to the most common of common folk seemed to think he was a demi-god.
In a theater as in life, seeing is believing.