Cold warriors of the 1950s achieved one of their most macabre victories by frying Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair, not for sharing atomic secrets, but simply as leverage to coerce her husband Julius to reveal sources.
Joan Beber’s play, “Ethel Rosenberg Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg” at the Beckett Theatre until July 13th probes gender politics and personal story. This lively and intelligent exploration doesn’t flinch at setting Ethel’s story to music, since as a smart Jewish girl from the Lower East side bursting to escape the confines of immigrant horizons Ethel (Tracy Michaelidis) saw herself on stage “hitting a high C.” Undercover Productions and Perry Street Theatricals give this rendition of “straight from the spy files” of history an imaginative twist by framing it with prison politics and interracial casting that bounces the themes in an echo chamber of past and present.
Ethel Rosenberg grew up on the radical Lower East Side, loved the arts and high school music, joined left-wing causes and married fellow activist Julius Rosenberg (Ari Butler). When Ethel’s dumb bunny brother David Greenglass (David Fierro) secured a low-level job on the Manhattan Project out in New Mexico, Julius became involved in passing atomic secrets to his Soviet buddies. The FBI had no trouble turning Greenglass into a sympathetic witness and he dodged, squirmed and squealed until the FBI had not just a case against Julius, but also a flimsy one against Ethel. We now know that Ethel was not culpable in the famous espionage activities, but was actually prosecuted and sentenced as part of the prosecutors’ strategy to pressure Julius. Both were executed in June 1953, despite international protests and appeals to the Supreme Court and President Eisenhower.
The lead Tracy Michaildis plays Ethel as a sensual young woman, enamored of her clever and politically committed husband. Her sexiness and his underline the libidinous side of Cold War Politics. Much demonizing of Reds and the Communist menace obsessed about free love, emancipated women and sexuality freed from church and traditional family. Black list aficionado and lawyer Roy Cohn (Kevin Isola) , sharpened his teeth on the case, when he had time off from his secret life as a closeted homosexual. Beber’s previous work on Cohn shows that she is well aware of the steamy underside of the Red Scare in this period, where figures with dubious credibility swung wildly at a vast imagined conspiracy of pinkos and yellowbellies. Yet, Beber suggests that the Young Communist League Rosenbergs were more like 20 somethings starting out in life, brimming with ideals, energy and passion, than like the Satanic figures of Cold War cartoons.
On stage, political and sexual gamesmanship play out on a checkerboard floor that fits both the international intrigue of the atomic bomb secrets that Julius Rosenberg was feeding the Soviets, and the gender politics of Cold War chess at home. Prison beds turned upside down become Judge Irving Kaufman’s bench, or upended, serve as cell walls or screens in the prison visitor’s room. Character doubling underscores lines between personal and political – the adult actor playing Michael Rosenberg (Serge Thony) hops on the bench to play the judge. Kaufman was a fellow Jew all too keen to wipe out the embarrassment of too left-leaning Jews with a draconian death sentence.
Song numbers by a cast that zips its onesies up and down for character changes, whisk our sensibilities from the cold “evidence” of the case – a reproduced Jello box cut in two, a crude drawing of supposed complex nuclear processes – to the emotional engine room of a culture drenched in atomic anxieties. The political gender tweak becomes clear as Ethel finds herself applying her passionate energy to becoming a top quality mom to her boys. This theme is underlined in explicit contrast to 1950s commentaries which saw her as a completely unnatural creature dedicated to a Party line who neglected her kids all the way to the electric chair. In that rhetorical version, Ethel not only betrayed America, she stepped in the apple pie of motherhood itself by refusing to give the FBI information so she could stay alive to raise her boys.
Beber and the director Will Pomerantz map the twists and turns of this ideological combat craftily. Ethel is matched up with a guide and advisor cast from the popular women’s prison show “Orange is the New Black.” Adrienne Moore plays the role of Lorraine/Broadcaster taking full liberty to be inside Ethel’s head or 50 years ahead of it. Lorraine comforts her, taunts her, wisecracks about politics, chants and dances, while whip-sawing the action from past to present. Audiences can hardly fail to grasp the ironies that permeate the situation of imprisoned mothers who are both jailed for often dubious offenses, and doubly condemned for letting down their young whom the State itself has sentenced to a motherless childhood.
One of the best numbers is a prison percussion piece that makes all available metal ring, in the spirit of the Bang on the Can music makers. A Betrayal Rhumba with Roy Cohn milks the subtext of Mafia good times in Havana enjoyed by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and other prominent businessmen and entertainment figures involved in the peculiarly bewitching hunt for America’s enemies which so often took place in wealthy watering holes.
Playwright Joan Beber remembers the protests against the Rosenberg case from her childhood, as part of a demonizing of Reds that frequently ensnared liberal Jews in its mud-slinging. And as black lists hit leftie Jews hard in the 1950s, audiences cannot help to realize how drug war politics hit a racial note in our time. Pomerantz uses interracial casting to put a contemporary spin on Ethel’s case — her son and mother are played by African-American actors. Class fears and patriarchal habits combine to make Ethel’s Lower East Side mother side with favorite son David Greenglass, rather than Ethel. According to Mrs. Greenglass, David is helping America spot the enemy, while Ethel is betraying the beloved new country.
Theatrically confident and historically adventurous, Pomerantz and Beber whirl us through an amazing array of Cold War moments, ideological tussles and passionate postures in this unusual tale of a woman scape-goated to her death.
Photographs: Top, Ari Butler, Adrienne Moore, Tracy Michaelidis (courtesy Ethel Sings); and bottom, Michael and Robby Rosenberg in 1953.