Transmuting political theater into film. Akalaitis targets nuclear power and `aggressive male attitudes'

``Dead End Kids'' is a chillingly appropriate title for JoAnne Akalaitis's new movie: a capsule history of nuclear power, in the form of an avant-garde variety show. Taking a frankly critical attitude toward its subject, the highly impressionistic film wanders from past to present, tracing today's atomic attitudes back to the fantasies of medieval alchemists and the mingled hopes and fears of Marie Curie when she explored the properties of radium.

Characters range from the historical Curie and the mythical Faust to a gushy talk-show hostess and a repulsively crude nightclub comedian.

While some are not directly connected to the film's nuclear subject, each serves to illustrate a different aspect of the industrialized world that developed atomic power and has, in turn, been shaped by it. Their presence also brings issues of social control, political responsibility, and sexual politics into the picture.

Curious about the form and content of this unorthodox movie, I met filmmaker Akalaitis in Greenwich Village for a Mexican lunch. Our last formal interview had been six years ago, when the stage production of ``Dead End Kids'' opened in New York to glowing reviews. It was produced and performed by Mabou Mines, an adventurous troupe of which Akalaitis is a founding member. She's still actively involved with that company and has also directed other productions at theaters from California to Cambridge, Mass., earning much critical praise in the process.

I began by asking how she chose the structure of ``Dead End Kids,'' which jumps continually between past and present, comedy and pathos, myth and history.

``I felt a very naturalistic form would be a mistake,'' she replied, talking with an energy and enthusiasm that belied the somber subject of her movie. ``I didn't want to fall into `Madame Curie at home with the kids' or something like that.''

Although she wanted an impressionistic form that would suggest the wide-ranging implications of her subject, Akalaitis also wanted an intimacy that would reflect her personal feelings about nuclear power. These are rooted in her experience as a mother and her worries about the future of her two children. They're also related to her conviction, as an ``avid feminist,'' that nuclear issues have been shaped largely by aggressive male attitudes.

``It was Madame Curie's voice that seemed to shake down as the dominant voice of the story,'' the director says. ``I find both her fascination and her doubts about radiation very poignant. And frankly, a woman's voice was important to me.'' Akalaitis found that the ``very female, almost mystical'' tone of Madame Curie made an effective contrast with ``the male voice about nuclear power'' in the film, which tends to be ``a macho, sexual expression....''

Although her feminist views played a part in shaping the movie, Akalaitis says they came into play only when they helped illuminate the nuclear questions that ``Dead End Kids'' is all about. ``There is a point made about sexual politics,'' she maintains, ``but it's only there in the context of the big point.''

The film's nightclub scenes, featuring a repellent comedian and a woman he calls onstage from the audience, illustrate this approach. The woman, treated in a horribly sexist manner, never allows herself to realize what's happening and rebel. But the point of the episode is less to attack sexism, Akalaitis explains, than to suggest that ``on some level, we make ourselves objects when we do not think about information that's being given to us.''

The comedian's rough, Lenny Bruce-type routine is also meant to stir up thought about what's acceptable in a supposedly civilized society. ``You take that style and push it,'' says Akalaitis, ``and it sort of explodes the clich'es - like how do we think about women, about demonstrations, about science, about obscenity? And then we think: `Is he obscene?' Well, yeah! But not compared to a nuclear holocaust!''

Akalaitis has no illusions that film or theater can transform society overnight. But she hopes ``Dead End Kids'' will get her audiences thinking. ``If we can listen to [some of today's politicians] without being outraged,'' she says heatedly, ``we're dead.'' While she acknowledges that such apathy is due partly to ``cultural bombardment,'' she still hopes the media can help to cure the trouble they've caused. ``Things are too painful to think about,'' she states, ``but we have to think about them anyway. Maybe the movie will get people to do that.'' If viewers then turn their thoughts into actions, that's fine. If not, Akalaitis has at least taken a positive step. ``I can't do everything,'' she says. ``I'm a director, not a do-gooder. For me, it's all about the art of directing.''

Akalaitis feels there's nothing radical about making a statement through film or theater. She cites the late West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, calling him ``the greatest artist of our time'' and saying that ``every story [he filmed] was a political story. And he got to make 40 films!''

As for the stage, where she still does most of her directing, ``There was political theater not only with the ancient Greeks but right here in the 1930s - the WPA theater, the first black theater, the first regional theater. ... And in the '60s there was the Living Theatre, the Open Theatre.''

Akalaitis is convinced that today's film and theater would be more vibrant - and more popular - if this sort of commitment were still the rule instead of the exception. ``The situation is very depressing,'' she says, referring to the frivolity of the current entertainment scene. ``That's why theater is a luxury, and that's why people don't go - because in some deep way they're not being fed.''

Commitment and ideas are what people want and need, she continues. As proof that art can have a powerful effect on a society, she observes that ``in third world countries, when an oppressive regime comes in, the first people to `get it' are the directors and writers and poets and artists....

``The theater art that's coming out of South Africa is profoundly political, revolutionary art - and this isn't the first time that's happened in the history of the world. Art is satisfying the cultural needs of the people in that country, or certain of the people.'' Her travels in Israel and Nicaragua have made her even more certain of this. ``The audiences listen in those countries,'' she reports, ``because it's all so important. Art is a heroic effort there.''

By contrast, she says regretfully, American art is too often trivial and self-centered. ``What satisfies our cultural needs are stories about how I can't communicate with my husband or boyfriend, or how I need money, or how I'm having a midlife crisis.'' It's not that art must have a specific political message, she adds. ``But it ought to be in the real world!''

Despite all this, she feels there is hope for future American film and theater, because a significant number of her contemporaries are resisting the ``bottom line'' mentality she finds so irritating in the show-biz world.

``I think there are a lot of artists of my time and generation who are interested in being very selective about what they do,'' she asserts. ``Not just because it's a point in their careers when they can be selective, but because it's important to be aware of where you're going. When you get there, the people might be very important - not in terms of a career move, but in terms of a spiritual or life move.''

In keeping with this view, Akalaitis is making her plans carefully. ``I want to go to Alaska because I know there's some culture there that will really touch me,'' she says. ``Or I may go to Cape Breton Island, where Mabou Mines originally comes from, because they're having a theater festival there in May, when it's still all frozen. I could work with people who aren't really actors but are, like, fishermen.

``I'm thinking about where I'll go because it'll be important for my life and my art in a much less clear way than a direct career move. And I'm hearing that not only from me, but from a number of other people....''

``Dead End Kids'' is now having a special engagement at the Film Forum in New York.

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