‘The Cradle Will Rock’
The Weekend Theater
Often when a small volunteer theater such as the TWT attempts a large production, its performance flops along with its ambitions. Such could have easily been the case with its latest play “The Cradle Will Rock,” hosting a cast of more than 30 acting parts and an elaborate historical setting during Depression-era unionization and Red Scares.
But this play is a careful choice for the play’s director and TWT’s founder, Ralph Hyman, and through some subtle side-stepping this performance is a practical success. It adequately supports its weighty cast, and it realizes its ambitions not in spite of its sparse accommodations, but because of them.
“The Cradle Will Rock” was originally created by Marc Blitzstein and Orson Welles through support of government grants for community theater in New York, and was thus cast with amateur actors and the desperately unemployed. But for its riotous content and strong pro-union message, “Cradle” was barred by government security and forced to relocate to an independently owned theater. The actors were forbidden to perform on stage, but defiantly performed it anyway, sitting in the crowd to tip-toe around the red tape.
The play’s amateur roots and scrimpy upbringing make TWT the absolutely perfect place to perform it. So, when singing voices aren’t quite on key, or performances seem outlandish, it only makes them feel that much more authentic. The cast meanders among the crowd during the play and uses the normal space of the auditorium for some unique stage sets, which makes for one of the most involving plays you’re likely to watch.
If one criticism could be held against the play, it’s that the original cast would have likely consisted of a more diverse ethnicity, especially blacks. In fact, only one actress, Tracy Tolbert, can boast to represent this diversity, and only on account of her skin color fitting her role.
Despite that one minor complaint, “Cradle” as performed by TWT is one of the rare gems of local theater you’re likely to see this year. Though a period piece, its message is still applicable today with (as Hyman states in the playbill) Arkansas’s own Wal-Mart trying to suppress labor unionization. And on purely aesthetic grounds, its slapstick humor and social satire is just as biting and on target as it ever was. Thanks to Ralph Hyman, an American classic is brought to vibrant life.
— By Dustin Allen