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Playing Politics 

State of the Arts

Published June 30, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Unless you've been in solitary confinement, you surely know that Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 broke all documentary-film records last weekend. That is, in the dollar-obsessed parlance of the movie industry, it earned an astonishing $23.9 million at the box office. To put that in perspective, consider that Moore's previous doc, Bowling for Columbine, took nine months to reach $21.6 million.

But the significance of this film surpasses the crass calculations of ticket sales, its Palme d'Or at Cannes last month, and the fact that a nonfiction, political film is generating more lines around blocks than Dodgeball. Some optimists are suggesting that the anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 might create more heat than the administration can bear, come Election Day.

Whether or not the film will get more people to voting booths, it's certainly delivering them to movie theaters, in blue and red states alike. Both the Roxy in Burling-ton and the Savoy in Montpelier had sold-out weekends. This despite -- or perhaps in part because of -- a concerted effort by the website to intimidate theater owners who carried Fahrenheit 9/11.

The Roxy, one of several local theaters owned by Merrill Jarvis, was not on the email "hit list," according to manager Mike Palmer, speaking from Jarvis' Williston theater the Majestic. "The only questions emailed have been, 'Is it going to play at the Majestic?' or if they could buy tickets online," he says.

Palmer notes that he has not yet had time to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Neither has Savoy owner Rick Winston. He's been too busy handling the crowds. What he's not doing is responding to the hundreds of negative emails apparently prompted by Move America Forward.

Though the missives have reduced to a "trickle" since the film opened Friday, Winston estimates he's received around 2500. "I don't know how we got on that list," he says. "It was mostly chains." Winston is amazed but unfazed -- most of the writers were out-of-staters threatening to boycott the Savoy if he showed Fahrenheit 9/11. Big whup.

One such letter, from a man in California, reads in part: "If I went to the store and saw something as vile as this I would complain to the store manager. I love America. I do not want to bring the Middle East and Islam to America -- do you? Please. Send a message to Michael Moore that his anti-American puke movie is not wanted here."

Winston says he did respond gratefully to a couple of supportive emails. And this week, he's adding a 4 p.m. showing for the duration of the film's month-long run to handle the overflow at his 130-seat room. "This is a special movie at a special time in history," Winston says. "I think it's important for people to see it."

Of course, the revenue from Fahrenheit 9/11 is welcome, too -- especially at an independent theater like the Savoy. But even moviehouse owners who may disagree with Moore's message are going to back freedom of speech on this one. As Palmer puts it, "The lines stretched out to City Market [from the Roxy]. We love the business." No doubt they'll love it in Morris-ville, too: Fahrenheit 9/11 opens this Wednesday, June 30, at the Jarvis family's Bijou Cineplex.

It's not often that a play about poverty, powerlessness and self-destructive violence is called "immensely entertaining." But that's what Weston Playhouse co-producing director Steve Stettler says about Topdog/Underdog, opening this Friday. He also calls the work "important, dynamic and risky." Why? "Because it's an edgy piece that takes an honest look at the tragic effects of poverty and prejudice in America," Stettler explains.

Topdog/Underdog is the story of two African-American brothers, abandoned by their parents and living in a coldwater flat. Lincoln is a former street hustler trying to "go straight" by working as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. His younger brother Booth is a shoplifter who wants Lincoln to teach him how to be a card shark.

Though being black and male in urban America has specific perils, life on the edge can happen anywhere and to anyone of any color, Stettler points out. If it sounds grim, that's exactly why he worries that people will not be drawn to see the play, which he insists is "life-affirming." Topdog/Underdog is "a kind of dance of life and death between a modern-day Cain and Abel as they try to find a way... out of a life of rejection and marginalization," Stettler says. It's "good and thought-provoking theater."

Originally directed by George C. Wolfe at New York's Public Theater, the work won author Suzan-Lori Parks a Pulitzer Prize in 2002. At Weston it stars classically trained actors Raphael Peacock and Michael Potts, and is directed by Tim Vasen, former associate artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage.

Weston, now in its 68th season, is Vermont's oldest professional theater and the only one with a League of Resident Theaters contract. "Part of our mission... is to produce works by and about people of color," Stettler notes. Along with larger productions in its proscenium stage, for the past five years the Playhouse also has presented works in unconventional settings -- Topdog/Underdog is at the Weston Rod & Gun Club.

Eventually, Stettler says, they hope to build a performance venue much like Burlington's FlynnSpace. And in Flynn-like fashion, "talkbacks" will follow each performance of Topdog/Underdog. "It's part of our attempt to get people to engage, to wrestle with the material," Stettler explains. "One doesn't expect to see this kind of play in one of the whitest states in the country."

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is a cofounder and the Art Editor of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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