Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2007
I tried to explain American Soup to someone the other day and ended up saying, “Well, at the back of the stage Andy Warhol is in purgatory, on the front we watch 50 years in the lives of this Italian-American family who run a restaurant in Queens, and in the corner stage right there is a live rock band. And there’s an Elvis impersonator.” The listener said that sounded like a recipe for disaster, but I assured her that those disparate ingredients did indeed blend together to form a flavorful and intriguing “American Soup.
Here’s how the soup was concocted:
In 2004 the New York State Theatre Institute entered into an exchange program (one of many such programs over their 31 year history) with Teater Västmanland in Västeras, Sweden. They were asked to bring a one-act production to be performed at lunchtime in a Swedish tradition called teater soppa or theatre soup – a little theatrical nourishment for the soul – that would enlighten the Swedish hosts about American culture. NYSTI’s Producing Artistic Director Patricia De Benedetto Snyder asked Mary Jane Hansen, a frequent guest artist and writer with the company, to create the script. Since music is the international language AND Hansen happens to be married to NYSTI Music Director Will Severin, the show became a musical as well as a cultural retrospective of America over the past 50 years.
During her research, Hansen found repeated references to pop artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987), who was coincidentally famous for his paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. “It is an amazing coincidence that they wanted a soup and I kept on finding Andy Warhol,” Hansen has remarked. It wasn’t long before Warhol found his way on to the stage, along with the Italian-American Marcello family of Queens (Hansen grew up in Whitestone, Queens), and a live rock band, headed by Severin.
Hansen refers to her original product for Sweden as “condensed soup” since it needed to fit into the 45-minute lunch hour slot. Since then American Soup has been expanded to a little over an hour and a half, and has been performed in Italy, and given a staged reading last year at NYSTI. It will travel on to Queens Theatre in the Park after the current limited run in Troy.
It is greatly to the credit of director Bill Fortune and the solid NYSTI team, who really do work together as a true theatre company, that this precarious mixture of ingredients comes together into a palatable whole. If any one element – direction, writing, acting, music, design – were weaker then this soup could be one of those dishes that starts off strong and then develops a funny after-taste.
The most volatile ingredient is the Andy Warhol story line. Although Hansen does successfully and believably bring the Marcello family in contact with Warhol (John McGuire) in the course of the play, the fact that he and his Purgatorial inquisitor Joe (Ron Komora) are on stage constantly is sometimes unsettling, especially since John McGuire offers such an eerie embodiment of Warhol.
I took an hour the day before I went to see American Soup and visited the Warhola Becomes Warhol exhibit of Warhol’s early work, on display at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, MA, through June 10. And there, front and center as you enter the gallery, is an actual can of American Soup – Campbell’s Consomme (Beef), circa 1962-1964 – carefully preserved under glass. Warhol started his career as a commercial artist, a background that is evident in his famous later works. And that background also caused him to be deeply interested in how the media uses art to manipulate society. “The world fascinates me,” Warhol was quoted as saying, and this fascination led to minute and meticulous observation of everything. During the show Warhol repeatedly photographs Joe for a portrait. The idea of him hovering over the Marcellos, and, God forbid, the rest of us, is quite unsettling.
Squeezing 50 years of American culture, history, and music – and Andy Warhol – into 100 minutes is challenging enough, but Hansen manages to create an interesting and believable story for the Marcello family – papa Tony (John Romeo), mama Anna (Carole Edie Smith), and daughters Elizabeth or Beth (Shannon Rafferty) and Magdalena or Maggie (Hansen) – and the family next door – the widowed Helen (Sara Melita), her brother-in-law Freddy (Joel Aroeste), and sons John (David Girard) and Michael (David Bunce).
This story is told through various people’s points of view, but primarily those of Maggie, who is a mere child when the play begins, and Michael, who is four years her senior. That they become an item but never quite manage to become a couple is the thread linking their many memories of larger cultural events: the time Elvis (Gary Lynch, who also doubles as Maggie’s lawyer/husband, Ron) ate at the Marcellos’ restaurant, to the Kennedy assassination, the first lunar landing, the Vietnam War (John is drafted). Somehow after about 1975 defining cultural moments become more sparse and Maggie and Michael’s personal journeys take over the plot.
Even in its expanded form, this is still condensed soup, and with lesser actors you might miss much of the plot. Not only is this cast good at conveying a lot of plot through facial expression and body language, but they have had the luxury of together working on this play and these characters for a couple of years. They understand the people they are playing and the story they are telling and convey even the unspoken plot points clearly.
The music is so good and so very close to the familiar recorded versions that it is hard to remember that it is being performed live. I have seen shows with a similar theme to this one and the music has always been “canned.” To hear a song you a identify strongly with, say, Janis Joplin or James Brown, and realize that it is actually that person sitting over there replicating that distinctive sound, is repeatedly startling. The band and singers are no made much of. Most of the singers are also instrumentalists and all of them perform seated in the band’s little corner of the stage. I was seated at the opposite side of the theatre from the band and found myself spending too much time craning my neck and trying to guess from body language (mouths were concealed by microphones) who was singing when I should have been looking at the action on the stage.
A few songs are performed on the stage proper as part of the action of the show. Lynch sings Can’t Help Falling in Love With You in his Elvis guise; Girard’s John sings California Dreamin’ to his beloved Beth; and Brandon Jones, as the flamboyant DJ at Maggie’s wedding reception, gets to belt out Like A Virgin, until Bunce’s Michael commandeers the microphone for a drunken rendition of Missing You. But most of the vocals are handled by the band members – Aroeste and Severin on guitar, Jones on keyboard, Raymond Jung on bass, and percussionist George Fortune – along with female vocalist Shannon Johnson, who has a gorgeous head of hair and a fantastic set of pipes (her legs aren’t bad either!) I wish the band had been situated and lit more prominently. Perhaps they should be upstage and Andy and Joe should move down right?
There are no weak performances in this show, and among the many brief scenes each cast member gets his or her moment of glory. I loved Smith’s scene with Christine Boice Saplin as Sister Mary Rose in which her Anna proclaims “I’m too busy to be a feminist!” although it is evident from the dialogue that both the nun and the housewife/restauranteur are feminists through and through. Girard’s California Dreamin’ scene and the one in which Aroeste gets to sing Wild Rover were effective, as was Bunce’s drunk scene at Maggie’s wedding, as Romeo was earlier in that scene in his toast to the happy couple. Rafferty was deeply moving as the troubled Beth who cannot bear the hand the world has dealt her. Her trauma knocks Maggie off kilter for many years as well, and only at the end of the play to we see the healing begin. Lynch was sadly underutilized in this play. I hope he returns to the Capital District in a larger role soon!
I have already mentioned McGuire’s embodiment of Andy Warhol. At the performance I attended he didn’t even step out of character when he delivered the curtain speech, which was a nice touch. I am embarrassed to say that, if I have ever seen or heard Warhol I have forgotten all about it, but I assume that McGuire’s rendition is true to the original. If its not then its very strange indeed, but since Warhol was strange and proud of it I would guess that McGuire’s soft, high-pitched voice and passive demeanor are a good impression.
Komora has rather a thankless job as Joe. In fact, Hansen doesn’t make clear where Warhol and Joe (no last name, it is hinted he may be Saint Joseph) are until a good two-thirds of the way into the script, and she never explained to my satisfaction just why Warhol was in Purgatory in the first place. There seems to be some debate about whether he should end up in Heaven or Hell. As a practicing Byzantine Rite Catholic, Warhol no doubt believed in Divine Judgment, but just why God should find his case so puzzling is not explained.
Hansen herself offers a gentle and believable performance as Maggie, a role that is obviously near and dear to her heart. She does a nice job singing Peculiar, a song she and Severin wrote together. He has two other songs in the show as well – I Don’t Wanna Give Up, co-written with Tony Hastings, and his solo work Movin’ On.
I mentioned earlier that I had seen shows that tackled this theme and covered this period of history before, but none as intriguingly as “American Soup.” Hansen writes with a clear and distinctive voice, and she has taken a big risk in adding so many diverse ingredients to her “teater soppa.” The show as it is performed now runs 100 minutes with no intermission. I wonder if it couldn’t become a two-act play. An additional 20 minutes would allow a couple of the vaguer moments to be fully fleshed out. The show is certainly compelling enough to encompass an intermission without losing momentum. I wish the Soup Team well in their travel to Queens and hope we get to crack open the can here again soon.
The New York State Theatre Institute presentation of American Soup runs through March 17 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children 11 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
For more information on Andy Warhol, I recommend visiting the Web site for the Warhol Foundation and the Andy Warhol Museum.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007