A good investment

"Tulipomania' at the Arden (1st review)

6 minute read
Heller (left), Bustamante: In search of a quick fortune.
Heller (left), Bustamante: In search of a quick fortune.
Tulipomania was in its final rehearsals when Facebook went on the market for $38 a share in an initial public offering that's now being investigated by regulators. On the day of the musical's first preview, Facebook shares sold for $32, and they were just below $29 by the time the orchestra began the overture on opening night.

You'll pay more for a ticket to Tulipomania, and you'll get your money's worth.

The title refers to the Dutch craze for tulips in the mid-1630s. People bought and sold bulbs at increasingly higher prices, and eventually were selling futures when, quite suddenly, the market ran out of people who wanted to buy high. The tulip market crashed, and many investors— not simply the high rollers but also common folk who had sniffed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for riches— were wiped out.

Getting high on history

Michael Ogborn's musical covers that ground, but not by pretending to be a historical period piece. Rather, it is set in a hash bar in modern-day Amsterdam. The bar's owner, waiter, regulars and two tourists get high. In their euphoria, they're transported back in time to the mania's heyday, where they assume the roles of its participants and reveal, not so incidentally, some of the human tragedy wrought by their greed.

It's a convincing construct. Holland's bulb auctions actually took place in the back rooms of bars (called "colleges"), so the scenery need not change to be truthful. The present-day characters don't have specific names, so they're free to morph into 17th-Century Dutch as needed— buyers, sellers, lovers, relatives.

They're led by the bar owner (Jeffrey Coon), who is eager to relate this slice of his country's history and to invite his customers to take roles in his retrospective.

Slow start

The evening gets off to a slow start, full of draggy exposition as the present-day is firmly established and the history of tulipomania is introduced.

A "man" (Adam Heller) settles into his usual table, troubled by the thought that he's an inadequate breadwinner for his family. The two American tourists (Alex Keiper as a "young woman" and Joilet F. Harris as a "woman"), out for their last fling before flying home, show up and order the strongest smoke the bar offers.

The waiter (Billy Bustamante) starts his work; a painter (Ben Dibble) dresses up the bar's blackboard. And Coon starts the song "Tulipomania," literally setting the stage for the Arden audience as well as for his customers.

Ogborn's poetic license

Once we're transported back in time, the pace picks up. The "man" gets a name: Jan van der Bloem, an investor who loses sight of his original simple desire to find financial security and gets consumed by a hunger to "Suck up all the treasure that you can—that's become the measure of the man."

The auction scenes exuberantly capture the Dutch mania, partly because the production takes some poetic license. The bar owner conducts the action in the modern manner: the so-called English auction, or open ascending-price auction, with open bidding and the top bids known to everyone during the process. It's perfect for an adrenaline rush, with or without hashish.

In the 17th Century, auctions were mostly conducted like chess games started and ended by pairs of buyers, with the middles played by their agents. We call it haggling, but it was done quietly. Only at the end might observers get a payoff: a free round of drinks.

Bernie Madoff redux?

Van der Bloem gets caught up in the auctions. "Being rich isn't just for the rich any more," he announces, jubilant because of his successful early trades. But the stakes soon transcend his reach, and he loses all reason in pursuing them. Eventually he crosses a couple of moral and legal lines and is punished by being put in the stocks for a week.

When the tulip market crashes, Van der Bloem is imprisoned and helpless, and consequently unable to cash out. He loses his entire investment, home and all, right down to his candlesticks. And he dies.

Luckily for the "man," he's only playing the Van der Bloem role. The characters return to the present, where the "man" admits to having previously made a mistake that cost investors millions.

Presumably he's a Ponzi schemer like Bernard Madoff. But it's unfair of playwright Michael Ogborn to spring this crucial news on us so late in the play, since it's so critical to our feelings for the character. The "man" makes a sincere plea for forgiveness, but it's Ogborn who should do the apologizing (and maybe fix the problem).

Unambiguous rage

Ogborn has woven some 17th-Century harmonies, folk ballads and Turkish music (the tulip is traced to Turkey) into his not especially memorable score, but his music is definitely contemporary, with borrowings from gospel, Tin Pan Alley and probably other sources.

His lyrics are witty without being facile. The "man" thinks he'll master the botany of tulips, but gives up quickly. "It "bewilders me," he says, adding that he's only interested in what "be-guilders me."

When the "painter" tells the "young woman" in song that he wants to paint her, she sings, "Paint me a way to get through tomorrow." And as the "woman" playing the neglected wife of the mad investor, Joilet Harris delivers a touching lament on her husband's desertion of their family. She ends it by clenching her fist and touching it twice to the table, her rage bottled but unambiguous.

The Arden's stage crew renders this experience total. When it's raining, real water falls behind the building. The house lights are shaded with fabric that fall over the globes like inverted tulips.

A word from our sponsor

When Ogborn began his work back in 2005, the contemporary equivalent of tulipomania was the dot.com bust, but today the big banks and their billion-dollar trading bets would come to mind. So it's worth noting that this production is sponsored by Fox Chase Bank.

Earlier this year, a health insurance company sponsored the Philadelphia Theatre Company's staging of Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide, in which the main character promotes insurance fraud as a solution to Alzheimer's disease.

God bless these sponsors who honor their commitments to works that trash their own business models. Or maybe they're just confident that, in any case, art, as W. H. Auden put it, "makes nothing happen."♦

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

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.

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