‘The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius….’

From November 28 to December 14, 2008, Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater (CAMT) will make its Theater for the New City debut with a musical tragedy, “The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes, and about Their Untymelie End while Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining New York.” The piece is written and directed by Vit Horejs.

In this Object Theatre-style production, CAMT will explore the myths surrounding the Rosenbergs’ purported betrayal of the atomic bomb secret to the Soviet Union. The play will show the whole first half of the 20th century, from the immigration of Ethel’s and Julius’ parents at the beginning of the century to the Great Depression and WWII, two monumental historic events that were both formative for the Rosenbergs. The three main stories will interweave the radical transformation of both main protagonists: Ethel, who dreams of Broadway stardom, and Julius, who studies the Scriptures fervently and “takes them literally,” both becoming firm believers into Communist dogma, a transformation that will eventually cost them their lives.

Marionettes of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Photo by Tom Lee.
Marionettes of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Photo by Tom Lee.

The manipulative art form of Object Theater has always been a component of this troupe’s work, but it takes center stage in this production. The design by Tom Lee will use found objects as its main component. The idea is for found objects to be used symbolically as a proxy for characters and settings in the play. So a bed frame doubles as a lectern and a pulpit; office chairs double as electric chairs. The basic design unit is a series of constantly moving windows, each of which becomes a stage framing the actions. It’s an experiment in perspective which is not so far removed from marionette theater, when you think about it, since the puppet stage is actually a small window.

The songs by Theresa Linnihan, accompanied by Kenny Wollosen on drums and percussion, Carmen Staff on accordion and Nick Gianni on bass, are in the style of Kurt Weill. There are toy marionettes by Milos Kasal and Theresa Linnihan; costumes by Michelle Beshaw and lighting by Federico Restrepo. The performers are Deborah Beshaw, Michelle Beshaw, Michael Henry, Vit Hooejs, Theresa Linnihan, Valois Mickens, Alan Barnes Netherton, Steven Ryan, Ronny Wasserstrom and Kat Yew.

The idea of the play grew out of the Ethel and Julius scene in CAMT’s “Once There Was a Village” (La MaMa, 2007), a gigantic ethno-opera with puppets and found objects based on Yuri Kapralov’s book of the same name, in which characters included many representatives of the revolutionary tradition of the Lower East Side. The Village Voice (Gwen Orel) described that work as “Playful, perplexing, and powerful.”

Vit Horejs became interested in the Rosenbergs through his work on “Once There Was a Village.” He says that Village radicals like these are the people he treasures. He grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain where the Rosenbergs were presented to him as heroes when he was small. Some of the themes of this play were foreshadowed in CAMT’s “The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald” (La MaMa, 2004). Once Horejs came to view Communism as “something fallacious,” his view switched on the Rosenbergs, but his desire for a healthy American democracy led him to decry the lack of due process in their trial.

Dramatically, the play starts at the moment of their execution and develops through flashbacks to their lives. Its tone is ironic. An affinity for Kafka runs deep in the Czechs, and the trial of the Rosenbergs is indeed Kafkaesque. Horejs muses, “They were guilty before it started. It was a machine that the prosecutor set in motion. He thought that the more pressure that was put on them, the more it would force them to inform on others. Ethel wasn’t guilty of much, but she was basically used as leverage on Julius, despite the craziness of trying to execute her. The authorities were aware it would not be popular to execute a mother of two kids. They wrongly believed that Julius would “give himself up” in order to save her. But once she was sentenced to death, it would have been illegal to reverse the sentence. The Rosenbergs’ fate was sealed in a case of bullying gone wrong. So we have a steamroller, a Greek tragedy in which the people who have set something in motion are unable to reverse it.”

The show will run from November 28 to December 14, 2008 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, Manhattan. Performances will be Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $10 and the box office number is (212) 254-1109. Online ticketing is available at www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

Jonathan Slaff
Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.