The soul stirrers

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The set is modestly spare, a disheveled if not quite ramshackle affair, being the basement studio of an imaginary low-watt radio station run by a solitary disc jockey (Peter Newton) with a thing for Japanese culture, an anguished relation to the American scene, and an insomniac disposition. But just as the deepest truths can rise immaculately from the muffled vibrations of a scratchy old blues record, so does Bay Area playwright Gary Aylesworth’s new play See That My Grave Is Kept Clean slyly and unassumingly sound nothing less than the soul-stirring chords and discords of an embattled American imagination.
The play’s DJ-everyman, sitting at his desk and console in a kimono, his samurai sword on one side, his classic blues discs on the other, coos into the microphone to whomever might be listening to the evening’s program. Caught between suicidal despair and a desire for revitalization, he’s fending off the highly bankable depression of a Prozac nation with the ameliorative properties of Japanese rice balls. He’s also bent on finding a little truth amid the “tsunami of propaganda” that characterizes the society outside. To this latter end, he’s got the classic recordings from the Anthology of American Folk Music on heavy rotation, markers of another era of American depression — marvelous songs Newton and Aylesworth actually perform live (including the song borrowed for the play’s title) in lilting harmonies to their own musical accompaniment.
But our DJ sets some archival interviews spinning too, in counter-rotation to one another, as it were. The other characters (played by Aylesworth, acting out the interviews the DJ intersperses throughout the program) are two formidable contemporaries and spiritual adversaries of the mid-20th century: Edward Bernays and Harry Smith. The juxtaposing of these two figures, polar extremes yet both highly influential in the economic and cultural spheres, becomes the motive propelling Aylesworth’s deceptively casual, humorous, melodious, and intriguing new play.
Bernays, considered a father of the public relations industry (“public relations” being a phrase he coined to substitute for the tarnished term “propaganda”), was by the 1920s and for decades afterward the much sought-after guru of ballyhoo. He sold everything from cigarettes to presidents to a bloody US-backed coup in Central America on behalf of the United Fruit Company. Bernays was also (not incidentally) the nephew of Sigmund Freud, whose ideas he put to pioneering use in the realm of what he called “the engineering of consent.”
On the other side of the stage (and every other important extreme) is Harry Smith, the play’s prickly patron saint. A character too protean and idiosyncratic for a neat label, Smith was among other things an experimental filmmaker and the musicologist who compiled the legendary multivolume Anthology of American Folk Music, recordings largely made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Originally issued on the Folkways label in 1952, it was so influential in the folk music revival and beyond that Bob Dylan (our DJ reminds us) once boasted that he would not have existed but for Harry Smith. Along the way, the play broaches Smith’s other passions as a jazz enthusiast, painter, and even a record producer (he recorded the Fugs’ debut album in 1965, which leads to the story recounted in the play of how he came to be consulted on the best way to levitate the Pentagon as part of a famous 1967 antiwar action).
Aylesworth plays the nonagenarian Bernays with a high, rasping voice and a set of repetitive, almost cartoonlike gestures that (along with a tendency for the “taped” interview to slow down and speed up at odd, sometimes telling moments) poke fun at the self-congratulatory figure. Bernays is a man so far from shy about bragging of his connections and achievements that he unconsciously paints an entirely grim view of modern society with the cheeriest of dispositions. By contrast, Smith (played with equal facility and a slightly hyperbolic, wry affect) has a cantankerous air about him. While forthcoming enough, he casts back a knowingly cautious, skeptical, even sarcastic tone to his various interviewers.
Here are two spiritual fathers, you might say, of the 20th-century United States, whose diametrically opposed outlooks constitute and reflect something like a metaphysical rift in the culture at large. Blended with Aylesworth’s simple yet choice staging, the acute and droll performances, and the laid-back but excellent renditions of selections from the Anthology, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean approaches its themes with a charm all the more forceful for being quirky and understated.
And if our DJ channels the despair of the age, it’s clear that despair cuts two ways too. It leads either to the acquiescence and metaphysical poverty of Bernays-style fables of freedom and plenty or to the awakened, agitated thought, action, and social conscience of a Harry Smith, which seeks nothing in the end more than the obliteration of myth and the reanimation of the senses. With its rousing good humor and a shrewd theatrical assurance whose crystalline simplicity resonates with far-reaching themes, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean gives eloquent voice to the restless rebel wide awake beneath the glossy, manufactured surface of the American dream. SFBG
SEE THAT MY GRAVE IS KEPT CLEAN
Through Sun/27
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
Traveling Jewish Theatre
470 Florida, SF
$15–$20 (Thurs., pay what you can)
(415) 831-1943
www.constructioncrewtheater.com