Don't tell Joanne Woodward that agitprop is a dirty word.
"It's a wonderful word," said the actress-director. "It's an honorable word. A lot of people don't know what it means. It means agitation and propaganda. Agitation and propaganda don't have to be negative; they can be a positive thing. Here it's a positive thing." Woodward was referring to her staging of Eve Ensler's "The Depot," a one-act dark comedy that has been touring the country for the last year. Sponsored by Sane/Freeze, it opens Wednesday, for four nights only, at USC's Bing Auditorium.
The story follows a middle-aged, apolitical nurse (played by Shirley Knight) from nuclear nightmares to spur-of-the-moment protest at a nuclear missile field. "It's a consciousness-raising piece," Woodward said bluntly. "Of course, that sounds so dour. But it's also something of great humor and humanity--very moving, activating, exciting. And it's about what I think is the foremost subject to be involved in at this time: arms reduction."
The longtime activist and 1957 Academy Award winner dismisses the notion that the play's appeal would likely lie with the already-converted: "Almost all the time (excepting a six-week run Off-Broadway) has been spent taking it to various schools, colleges. And we haven't found them to be the converted at all. Mostly, they're the unknowing. That's exactly the audience we want to reach. We want to educate, open people's minds, allow them to start thinking and hopefully become activist."
Woodward originally commissioned the piece as a monologue for herself, but somewhere along the line, decided she would be better suited directing. It's something she's been doing more of lately--but not to the exclusion of performing.
"I act, but I tend to keep it on stage," she said. "Mostly regional theater, Off-Broadway. It's where I started out. Acting to me is a continuous process--and on the screen, it's not a continuous process. So acting on stage will always be more fun for me. And I'm a great believer in having fun."
And making money, too. "I always thought it was kind of pretentious to say, 'I'm not interested in commercial work'--like, 'I'm not interested in making a living," she said, laughing. "It's so silly. Everyone's concerned with commercial stuff." And commercials: witness Woodward's current spot for Audi--her first. "I needed to earn some money for a documentary I'm making on the Group Theatre," she said briskly. "We all have to do this sort of thing in order to do the creative work we want to do."
She is similarly practical about the inevitable public tagging as "Joanne Woodward, wife of Paul Newman." (Newman directed her in the recently released film version of "The Glass Menagerie.") "I'm not always identified with him and by him, but when I am, I don't mind. I certainly like him. There may have been a time when I felt (belittled), but I was younger then, more foolish, concerned with labeling--all those things that as you get older, you find are infinitely less important."
CRITICAL CROSS FIRE: In Alan Bowne's futuristic "Beirut" (at the Matrix), an unnamed sexually transmitted disease has wiped out half the population, sex is outlawed, and the infected are banished to Manhattan's Lower East Side--now renamed "Beirut."
The Times' Don Shirley was unimpressed: "The creators say it's not really about the plague--and that it's definitely not about AIDS. It's about two lovers and their tug of war on the issue of commitment. In other words it's another play about relationships. Bowne tiptoes around the wider social issues that the time and place of this play would appear to raise. Or perhaps he's saving that for the movie."
Noted the L.A. Weekly's Maryl Jo Fox: "Bowne's harrowing hourlong play is absolutely stunning, a frightening, funny and amazingly real look into a maybe not-so-distant future. . . ."
From the Herald Examiner's Richard Stayton: "When you examine Bowne's play in the context of today's headlines, it becomes exploitive and counterproductive. When you examine his story as art, it becomes a manipulative Romeo and Juliet set, say, during the Black Death. Dramatically, not even these two talented performers can manufacture tension out of Bowne's limited situation."
Said Daily Variety's Kathleen O'Steen: "Under Jimmy Bohr's driving direction and some bravado performances by the two leads, the piece accomplishes what it sets out to do; not entertain, but rather to make a statement, even possibly to frighten."
In Drama-Logue, T. H. McCulloh had high praise for the actors, set and lighting designers--and especially for director Bohr: " 'Beirut' should be every theatergoer's priority. It is masterfully conceived in its simplicity, its execution and the manner in which it delivers its message."