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‘Tulipomania’ at the Arden (2nd review)BY: Steve Cohen 06.02.2012
The intriguing story of Amsterdam’s 17th-Century tulip mania somehow got subordinated within a fictitious story set in a present-day pot bar. Michael Ogborn should have let the audience draw its own comparisons.
Tulipomania. Book, music and lyrics by Michael Ogborn; Terrence J. Nolen directed. Arden Theatre production through July 1, 2012 at Arden’s F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. Second St. (215) 922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.
When the present interferes with the pastSTEVE COHEN
In its earliest conception, Tulipomania was an intriguing idea: a musical portraying the true story of the boom and bust caused by tulip-bulb speculators in 17th-Century Amsterdam. But during its development process, history somehow became subordinated within a fictional story of present-day habitués of an Amsterdam pot bar. The play that premiered this week at the Arden focuses more on those contemporary folks than it does on the real 17th-Century Dutch speculators.
When David Ives wrote New Jerusalem, about the trial of Spinoza in Amsterdam in 1656, he resisted the temptation to frame it with a modern story. And when Michael Hollinger wrote about a 13th-Century French monastery (Incorruptible) and the Cold War of the 1950s (Red Herring), he likewise let those stories unfold in their own time periods.
I didn’t read or hear the early script of Tulipomania, which was co-written by Hollinger and Michael Ogborn, so I don’t know what didn’t work, nor why the present form evolved. But, personally, I’d rather observe what happened in the olden times and draw my own comparisons with today’s society.
I can see what impelled Ogborn to choose a modern-day café for his setting. The trading in Dutch tulip futures, circa 1630, often occurred at night at informal venues— not at a stock exchange— and was unsupervised by government.
The tulip was different from other flowers at that time, with intense petal colors found in no other plant. The tulip as a status symbol coincided with a rapid rise of the newly independent country’s trade fortunes. First, people fell in love with the beauty, then with the chance for profit.
This combination of emotional appeal with greed was paralleled in the late 20th Century when people wanted to be part of hip new technology by putting money into dot.coms; and when people embraced the ideal of owning their own dream house high on a hill, like some Oscar Hammerstein lyric. In each case a glamorous dream came first, followed by the thrill of seeing one’s investment multiply.
Gambling, by any other name
People sold tulips that they didn’t own to people who paid with money they did not yet have. Contracts for some single tulip bulbs sold for more than ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.
But everything crashed in 1637 when a few people decided to take their profits and run. The Dutch parliament decided that it wouldn’t enforce any tulip contracts because those speculators had been engaged in gambling, and people who suffered huge losses had no recourse.
This field of dreams didn’t produce as rich a crop as I expected. While we saw detailed action involving the 21st-Century denizens of the bar, the 17th-Century doings were shortchanged.
A cast of six doubles as 21st-Century travelers and native Dutch from the 17th. The barkeeper is strongly played by Jeffrey Coon, and Adam Heller portrayed an older American with fine texture. Joilet Harris contributed a rousing hand-clapping number, while Ben Dibble was appealing, even if his vocal talent was underutilized.
Alex Keiper was a strong-voiced Young Woman. Billy Bustamante, dancing around the café, was more of an ornament than a dramatic force.
Ogborn’s music is the most ambitious and complex of his career (which includes the Arden’s Baby Case and Café Puttanesca). He uses a variety of styles, including a touch of baroque and a considerable amount of colorful middle-Eastern music, motivated by the fact that tulips were imported into Europe from Turkey. (And before that, the flower had enchanted the Persians.)
I’d like to hear more of it. Would someone consider issuing a recording?
James Kronzer’s set and Dan Kazemi’s musical direction were excellent.♦
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