Financial upheaval, frustration with the rich, social fear, an incendiary urge to rise up and make your voice heard — are we in 1935, or 2017?
We're in East Dallas, in a tucked-away building that normally functions as an art studio, attending a meeting of cab drivers who want to go on strike. We are part of this meeting, brushing shoulders with the men who are fed up and wrung out, and watching through vignettes how the collapsing economy is tearing their families and lives apart. We're even encouraged to storm out with them, fists raised and feet stomping, shouts echoing into the night.
It's a searing production of Clifford Odets' 82-year-old agitprop play Waiting for Lefty, produced with raw, scary urgency by Upstart Productions, a company that has thankfully returned after hiatus. It's also a prime example of how necessary art and live theater can be, especially when it's functioning as biting social commentary.
That's what's especially powerful about this bare-bones production: it's the right show, done by the right company, at the right time. Director David Meglino and a cast of 16 demonstrates with uncomfortable, in-your-face vulnerability all the ways that government and big business can go wrong, and what happens to the Americans who are left to pick up the pieces.
The industrial touches brought in by set designer Cindy Ernst are so fitting and life-like, you'd be amazed that this warehouse-style room hasn't always looked this way. Dave McKee's lighting works especially well to distinguish between scenes, which illustrate all the ways the 1930s economy has crushed its ordinary citizens. Barret Nash's costumes are evocative of the time period yet stop short of Depression-era cartoon.
Same goes for the actors, who affect convincing era-appropriate accents without veering into caricature. There's not a weak actor in the bunch, though Robby Gemaehlich and Steph Garrett are particular stand-outs for their peek into a marriage that's reached its boiling point.
All performances of this production are pay-what-you-want, an always-appreciated touch that here takes on a special meaning. The unsaid implication is that Upstart Productions hopes you direct whatever funds you don't spend with them to a cause you're passionate about, because whether it's through theater, money, marches, petitions, or votes, the most important thing is that you make your voice heard.
Upstart Productions' Waiting for Lefty runs at Ash Studios through April 1.