My heart sank as the crowned head of Miss Liberty materialized toward the end of "Green Card" at the Mark Taper Forum on Wednesday night. It was time for JoAnne Akalaitis' witty extravaganza to come up with a final statement on the American dream, and a cheap shot at the lady with the lamp seemed to be looming.
But "Green Card" doesn't--one of the best things about it--work that way. The icon was treated with affectionate respect, for the wonder it can still bring to the eyes of a greenhorn just off the boat or his grandchildren taking a tour around the harbor.
Then, however, the stage fell into a fluorescent gloom that suggested basement rooms and sweatshops. We heard whispers of young men from Southeast Asia who come to the United States and die in their sleep, for no reason whatever, as if cursed by the new land.
Last of all, we saw a line of new Americans waiting for something--maybe for the future, maybe just for the Wilshire bus. In other words, "Green Card" declines to make a final statement on its subject, which will frustrate those who were expecting a reasoned argument about how America ought to deal with its newcomers, legal and illegal.
Considering the complexity of the subject, this seems to me quite a sensible approach for a theater piece to take. It's enough to provide the makings of the argument--what Lenny Bruce (who turns up at a couple of points throughout the evening) used to call "the information."
Not just the facts, which we can get from a book, but the feeling behind the facts. And "Green Card" reminds us that this subject is rife with feeling, however rational its disputants pretend to be. Listen to the voices floating around the theater as we enter, recounting the unquestioned vices of races other than the Anglo Saxon.
This is the straight anthropological dope of the early 1900s, when men of substance were beginning to talk about America's threatened swamping by sickly hordes from God-knows-where. It was equally possible for these gentlemen to talk about America as the great melting pot, and not see the contradiction. "Green Card" reminds us that we've always been schizophrenic about the subject.
That gives Akalaitis permission to jump around in time and space, so that Ellis Island in 1900 is also a detention center in today's El Centro (Douglas Stein's set can impersonate anything) and a Chinese actor can play a Jew astonished to see a Chinese. Collage is a dangerous method in the theater, and this piece doesn't totally escape being muddled, especially when Akalaitis turns to the war in Southeast Asia and Central America in the second act.
But her overlay of images generally works to remind us that all our families came here, willingly or not, from somewhere else; that nobody was very glad to see us; that we all had trouble learning the ropes. She adds something that we haven't heard in stage celebrations of the immigrant experience, such as "Tintypes." It is this: Some of us might have done better if our families had stayed home.
"Green Card" is suspicious about what America has done to the world, and it is not thrilled to observe how quickly our newcomers succumb to the lure of McDonald's and instant everything. At the same time, it shares--and projects--their excitement at the American beat, especially in Los Angeles, especially now.
What a town! Kosher burritos and won-ton strudel! Palm trees and credit dentists! However much Akalaitis disapproves, the theater maker in her eats it up. If "Green Card" is a serious show at heart, it drips with entertainment values, sometimes used ironically, but never presented with cold detachment--if it's not literally a musical, it moves and dances like one. (Carolyn Dyer was the choreographer.)
The cast isn't as big as it seems--only 11 performers. Their names say where their people came from: Raye Birk, Jesse Borrego, Rosalind Chao, George Galvan, Castulo Guerra, Jim Ishida, Josie Kim, Dana Lee, Alma Martinez, Jessica Nelson, Mimi Seton. But their talent is interchangeable, and anybody is likely to take on any task or accent.
Confusing? Not really. If we can't reduce "Green Card" to a conventional moral, if it even seems to contradict itself, we sense the moment-by-moment validity of its scenes and we remember how Walt Whitman dealt with the charge of self-contradiction: "I contain multitudes."