When Rebecca Davis Dance Company announced the world premiere of Greed: The Tale of Enron last spring, I struggled to imagine a more boring subject for a work of art. The quadratic equation? Knitting?
But then I heard about the local composer/actress Melissa Dunphy, who had created a cantata about the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing of 2007, when Alberto Gonzales fired seven Justice Department lawyers, and I thought: Well, she's got Davis beat. In a courtroom, lawyers can prowl the floor, verbally batter uncooperative witnesses, wink slyly at jury members, and inject dramatic discoveries and thrilling arguments into the proceedings. But what drama lies in a committee room where everyone is seated and the responses demand a dignified decorum?
Recently I attended a press preview for Dunphy's Gonzales Cantata, and boy, was I mistaken. Like Greed, Dunphy's musical piece overwhelmed me with the way it transformed the tedious machinations of an insider industry into a brilliant work of art.
Although Dunphy drew her entire libretto from actual transcripts, she managed to find and then exaggerate the human element in the Senators' questions. She switched the genders of most of the participants (for artistic and political reasons), and her Senators wear evening gowns and tiaras and sport sashes like the contestants at a beauty pageant. From the first moments, Patrick Leahy (Jessica Lennick) indulges in somber hyperbole ("Today the Department of Justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership unrivaled in its 137-year history"). Later, Arlen Specter (Danya Katok) viciously berates Gonzales (Mary Thorne) into a painfully sung submission.
Despite the Senators' outrage, the tone of the music and Gonzales's pleading responses elicit nothing but sympathy for George W. Bush's pathetic yes-man. And when Senator Orrin Hatch (Julia Mintzer) interrupts Gonzales's flagellation, he provides a moment of relief not only to the former attorney general but to some of us in the audience as well.
A sinister tone
Dunphy's music alone sells the show. From the rumbling bass during the processional opening, the fantastic sweep of Dunphy's orchestration heightens the drama at every point, and the singers— accomplished alumni or students from Julliard, Tanglewood, Peabody, Oxford and elsewhere— were impressive in the solo roles.
An urgent, sinister tone precedes and underscores Specter's grilling and the exposure of Gonzales's lies during the press conference. Later, moments of tension bubble up from a choral cauldron of distrust, hatred and partisan rancor during the "Attack Me" segment, where Dunphy's chorus of female Senators shower Gonzales with an unrelenting torrent of abuse.
She leavens the Senators' fury with humor, and tempers both comedy and outrage with moments of cynical revulsion: elegant music sickeningly employed to underscore Bush's preference for loyalty over judgment, and crass political expediency folded with the chords of the "Star-Spangled Banner."
Like a hangman's victim
Like her music, Dunphy's staging plumbs the latent drama of these Senate proceedings. As Gonzales stands onstage like a hangman's solitary victim, a chorus of Senators enters from the wings. But Dunphy also conveys and understands the pageantry— if not outright grandstanding— involved in this charade of justice. Senator Dianne Feinstein's sole comments enhance the ridiculous self-seriousness of these murmuring judges when she inserts, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" into her condemnation (which Feinstein actually said). The setting inside the University of Pennsylvania's Rotunda suitably invokes the austere serenity of the Senate hall that nonetheless becomes the backdrop for political buffoonery.
Ultimately, Leahy's grandstanding "I don't trust you" pierces the choral throng, and the Senators redirect their frustration at Bush and Cheney to take Gonzales down. In a nation where politics serves as a secular religion and sporting event all at once, a cantata about the most minor scandal of the Bush administration suddenly makes sense.
What's the point?
Still, I couldn't help thinking: What's the point? Do I really want to sympathize with a man who secretly signed off on torture memos, but cringed his way through 70-plus "I don't recalls" during his Senate Testimony? In Antigone, Sophocles wants the audience to feel terror for a criminal forced to suffer unjustly. Even Mauckingbird Theatre Company's recent production of John Logan's heavy-handed Never the Sinner had a point: To use a horrific murder as a tool for enlightening audiences about capital punishment.
Had Dunphy chosen to write her work about the Watergate burglars G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt— scapegoats like Gonzales— I could respect it more: those men at least had the sack to own up to their crimes. Dunphy might even come up with a plausible cantata in defense of the unapologetically bellicose Dick Cheney. What can be said in defense of Alberto Gonzales, other than that he was in way over his head and put his faith in the wrong people?
Dunphy seems to have misspent her prodigious talents on the minutiae of the Bush administration. What's missing from her otherwise ingenious creation is any sense of the consequences that politicization of the Justice Department can inflict on a democracy.♦
To view Jim Rutter's video interview with Melissa Dunphy, click here.
To read a response, click here.