“I-Ho” Opens and Inspires Rapturous Acclaim. So What Inspired “I-Ho?”

The review round-up here showcases local reviewers largely rising to task of wrapping language around Tony Kushner’s high octane gathering of smart progressives problem solving the impending fall of their patriarch. The play is meeting up with hugely enthusiastic audiences following Tuesday night’s triumphant opening.

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Here’s an aggregate of the first wave of reviews, from…

The Washington Post (And this kinda sums up the thematic dart to the heart of the play in one-fell-swoop)  “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” attempts to embody as well as illuminate a paralysis that is overtaking Gus’s children and the society at large, a slow-moving, money-fed decay that is neutralizing dissent, neutering the environment and smothering the working class.”

Theatre Bloom  5 Stars from this pretty new (and obviously excellent) publication: “Penned to perfection with riveting plot sparks that expose deep vaults of emotional trauma the work is exceptional and divinity to the written and performance craft.”

DC Metro Theatre Arts – 5 Stars – and this: “this show is a surfeit of surprise and substance, of significance and delight, of density and shimmering wit. And the long and the short of it is…don’t miss it.”

Broadway World (and we’ll take a headline with “Wild and Rollicking” anytime!)

CurtainUp The most mixed review thus far, but even still, there’s this: “To say that Director John Vreeke has squeezed every last bit of emotion, vigor, and intensity out of his cast would be an understatement. Every actor is working at full tilt and all are a pleasure to watch. Even their physical gestures are memorable. Tom Wiggin’s Gus, Lou Liberatore’s Pill, Josh Adams’s Eli and James Whalen’s Adam are particularly strong. Lisa Hodsoll as Maeve is very funny indeed. Rena Cherry Brown as Zeeko has some of the most sardonic lines and she delivers them with dead-pan grace.”

Maryland Theatre Guide A great shout-out to the set and scenic design: “Misha Kachman’s set is a good place to spend a few hours; its overstuffed bookcase denotes a life of reading (though it slants right instead of left). The cracks in the walls above the fireplace would denote fissures in the family as well, if they don’t crack open further when the angry son throws the bust of Italian patriot Garibaldi into it. Her brownstone facade floating ominously above them may be something you don’t notice until two hours in because of all the action on stage. The projections and sound of Jared Mezzocchi and Eric Shimelonis, respectively, perfectly frame the action and time. But there’s something timeless about the work of Kushner, brought to us in this stirring production, creating something that will stay with us.”

So that’s the first batch of reviews. The question I’ve posed to students — If, as we point out in early postings, Tony Kushner is paying homage to certain iconic American family dramas, how are those resonances manifesting themselves? Besides the aformentioned parallel between Gus and Jacob in Awake and Sing, in what ways does Kushner reference and spin and pay post-modern homage to some of our greatest American dramas?
Here’s just a partial list of some works that might come to mind as mash-up source material:
Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Clifford Odets’ Awake And Sing
Arthur Miller’s All My Sons or Death Of A Salesman
Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof
Or, in a more contemporary vein
Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County

I’m interested to read how I-HO aspires to pay its due to the masterpiece(s) and how, to whatever extent, it succeeds in establishing itself as a new family powerhouse of a play.

With more Kushnerian musings to come.

5 thoughts on ““I-Ho” Opens and Inspires Rapturous Acclaim. So What Inspired “I-Ho?”

  1. Both Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures follows stories of families in crises. The conflicts in both plays revolve around the deterioration of the patriarch in the family. In I-Ho Gus blames his “alzheimer’s” for his decision to commit suicide, though it becomes clear throughout the play that his fear is mostly a figment of his imagination. In Death of a Salesman Willy is actually afflicted with a mental illness, he is often consumed by visions of people and scenario from the past. In I-Ho Gus is advocates a socialist ideal and in Death of a Salesman Willy throws his belief into the American dream, constantly repeating his life mantra to be “well-liked.” The family structures of the Loman and Marcantonio families even mirror each other, with one child that completely falls into the idealism perpetuated by the patriarch, Empty and Hap, and another that rejects it completely, Vinnie and Biff.

    Willy and Gus justify their suicide attempts in hopes of providing for their children. Willy hopes that in his death he will be able to finally provide for his family with the $20,000 they should receive from the very life insurance he can’t afford to pay. He also hopes in his death to prove himself to Biff, to reclaim his worth by supporting his family financially and gather all the people who he has touched to show that he is “well-liked”. Similarly, in selling the house and killing himself, Gus hopes that the half million dollars given to each of his children will save them. Willy explains the feeling best: “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”

    The themes of American capitalism and the America dream are woven through each of these plays. In “Death of a Salesman” Willy’s psychological decline is motivated by his sense of failure as an American. He is depressed that his hard work never paid off as it did for his brother. Similarly, in “I-Ho” Gus can never give up on his communist ideals and he gives into his failure to bring any real change to the country.

  2. My original comparison between Kushner’s “I-HO” and Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” compared Kushner’s Gus to Odets’ Jacob: “Gus very much reminded me of Jacob from “Awake and Sing!” in that they are both the oldest generation in the household, both hold fervent Communist beliefs, both attempt to indoctrinate the younger generation (Gus with Empty and Jacob with Ralph), and both yearn for or do commit suicide for what they see as the betterment of their families” (located on the last blog post about I-HO).

    While the two works do have this similarity, I-HO and Awake and Sing! are comparable beyond their unsatisfied patriarchs. First and foremost, I-HO is clearly written in today’s world in terms of how women display their own agency. In I-HO, the female matriarch, Clio, is a former revolutionary who worked mysteriously alongside the Shining Path in Latin America. In Awake and Sing!, the matriarch displays strong, negative qualities of controlling her children and silencing Jacob in what she sees as his incessant and useless rants. The daughters in each work are also comparable, where Kushner’s Empty (Maria Teresa) seems to be Gus’ only stable child and has taken responsibility for her life and her job. Empty direct contrasts Odets’ Hennie, the daughter in Awake and Sing! who fits the damsel in distress role. Unlike Empty, Hennie relies on the men around her to survive while complaining all the way. In a modern twist, Empty is also a lesbian who displays more masculine qualities, while Hennie stereotypically plays a very feminine woman in need of a man’s help and care. Both daughters, however, do have a turning point in their love lives; Hennie’s takes place on stage, as she chooses to leave her husband for her lover. Empty’s moment originally takes place off stage as we become aware she was in a heterosexual marriage before divorcing and then pairing off with her new same-sex partner, Maeve.

    These character similarities and contrasts do not speak of coincidence, but rather a modernization of roles within the same traditional setting of the family home.

  3. There certainly are parallels between I-HO and Awake and Sing, but there are significant differences as well. I believe that despite these differences, Kushner has done an excellent job paying homage to Awake and Sing, and has simultaneously created an original work that has significant meaning in its own right.

    First, I will start with the similarities. The obvious one is between Gus and Jacob, both older men who ascribe to communism and either contemplate or commit suicide. They are both passionate men who value family. They also both try and influence and preach to a particular family member. Displaying these dynamics in both an older setting (Awake and Sing) and a newer one (I-HO) attest to the consistency of family in our lives and how it affects what we believe in and how we act. Both plays also use strong historical references in order to root the family dynamics in a certain time period. This helps the audience to better understand the characters mindsets and actions.

    These similarities certainly show that Kushner was paying his due to powerhouse family plays, but let’s talk about how his creation was a new take on a classical work. First, Kushner’s work explores family dynamics as they relate to sexual preference. Some of the arguments that we have seen in classical works (like infidelity) are further complicated in I-HO, such as Empty’s infidelity when she sleeps with her ex-husband behind her wife’s back. We also see issues with Pill and his love for a younger man over his husband. These character choices allow Kushner to display how families have perhaps become more complicated over time, and how modern issues, although similar to the past, have their own considerations.

    He also changes the dynamic by illustrating how people react when others openly consider suicide. In Awake and Sing, a character did commit suicide, but it was never openly discussed beforehand. In I-HO, we see the family debate suicide, perhaps illustrating the desensitized society that we live in today. Although mental illness is still a difficult issue to discuss and consider today, it is much more acceptable and typical for it to be openly discussed than it was years ago.

    Overall, Kushner’s complex work magnifies how family issues have persisted over the years, but have evolved and changed at the same time. It was an excellent work, and it has been enjoyable to see the similarities and differences between it and Awake and Sing.

  4. While watching and reading I-HO, my attitudes towards Gus, the father, changed rapidly as each argument and conversation uncovered more information about his past. I could not decide if he was a manipulative ex-union worker who had been living off of undeserved money or a hard-working father driven to suicide by his children’s and society’s abandonment. After reading Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, I better understand Gus’s role in Kushner’s work. Willy, the main character of Arthur’s work, struggles to gain the respect and, more essentially, acknowledgment, of his family, boss, and friends. He is driven to madness after working tirelessly for decades and, after all this work, is still not appreciated by anyone besides his wife.

    One of my favorite scenes in the play is when Linda, Willy’s wife, lectures their two sons on their disrespect towards Willy. Neither boy seems to understand Willy’s hard work; both view him and treat him like a failure. Linda states that Willy had been driven to the point of borrowing money in order to appear like he still had a stable income. Neither son seems to understand nor even try to understand Willy’s position.

    Gus and Willy seem to share this treatment. Both, despite their successes and hard work, fail to establish the respect or acknowledgment of the other characters. As such, Gus and Willy are driven to similar states of despair. The fathers seem to represent the disorientation of many Americans. While Gus and Willy work hard and achieve a lot, they both end up being replaceable and unnecessary to their families and society. Neither see the fruits of their labor; neither can reap the rewards of their years of work. The insignificance that both characters confront is something many Americans feel after working and competing in “the rat race”. While all try to achieve greatness, few actually do. Those that don’t are left to face their own unimportance.

    I also found similarities between Pill in I-HO and Brick in Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In I-HO, Pill, unfulfilled with his marriage to Paul, is drawn to Eli for the excitement that their relationship brings. Likewise, Brick is obviously upset in his marriage to Maggie and truly longs to be with Skipper. While both wish to partake in other relationships, both Brick and Pill are immobile. It is hinted at throughout William’s play that while Brick and Skipper were strongly attracted to each other, their desire for a relationship could not be satisfied. Brick’s confusion about his sexual identity and his inability to fully act on his desires mirrored what I saw in Pill. Pill, locked down in his relationship to Paul, pursues the thrills of his relationship with Eli as a way to cover the confusion he has about his own identity. Identity oriented from relationships is a major part of both plays. Both Williams and Kushner explore confusion of identities and the stagnation that this confusion wreaks on the lives and relationship developments of Pill and Brick.

    Aside from its main story, Kushner’s I-HO was interesting for its use of overlapping dialogue and strained speech to create stressful and dynamic scenes. I found the use of speech in this way very similar to that of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In both plays, scenes in which most family members are present include characters talking over each other and chiming in on the conversations. This creates very tense, dramatic scenes in both stories. Whether the characters are talking about Mary’s drug addiction or the brownstone, the overlapping dialogue creates a building tension in the scene that builds without resolution until the end of both plays.

  5. After reading and then experiencing a live performance of Tony Kushner’s I-Ho, I began to understand how Kushner’s work referenced past pieces such as Clifford Odets’, Awake And Sing.

    In I-Ho, as in Awake and Sing, audiences can see families being put under pressure as the older generation tries to persuade the younger generation to act in a certain way, while the younger generation tries to maintain a sense of independence. In Awake and Sing, this is seen clearly as the mother of the family pushes her daughter and son towards and away from certain relationships, career paths and dreams. In I-Ho, manipulation is also used by the family’s father figure, Gus – throughout the play he attempts to convince his children that the best thing that they can do is to let him kill himself, and at the end of the play his daughter comes to the conclusion that Gus is trying to convince her to be his accomplice in suicide. However, the children in both plays do make an effort to speak and act out against their parents. The Berger children decide that if they want to achieve happiness, they must act independently of their parents and shape their own life paths. And in I-Ho, the children ultimately refuse to accept their father’s death (or at least refuse to have a direct part in it), and also call their father out on his hypocrisy for trying to commit suicide. Thus, Kushner portrays his own conflicting, multi-generational family in I-Ho, with their own share of unique and explosive problems.

    Also, after seeing I-Ho and thinking about the kind of family that is portrayed in it by Kushner, I thought it interesting how unique the Berger and Marcantonio families were, and how this uniqueness may affect how the audience relates (or does not relate) to them. I am thinking back to our post-show conversation at the end of Awake and Sing – someone in the audience remarked that he could not relate to the Berger family even though the family and play as a whole were supposed to be reflections on American life at that time. The Berger family was, indeed, somewhat unique – a Jewish family living in New York City, the grandfather a Marxist. Now considering I-Ho, I wonder if Kushner’s family is also unique enough so as to alienate some members of the audience. In fact, Kushner’s family could easily be considered more unique than the Bergers – an Italian family living in New York City; the mother of the family is deceased; two of the three children have same-sex partners; the father, who is trying to convince his children to let him kill himself, is a member of the Communist Party USA. By focusing on such a distinct family (and consequently an extremely unique set of problems), it is quite possible that many audience members do not feel that they can relate to and thus understand the problems of the Marcantonio family. In fact, this happened to me at times throughout the show. But, at the same time, I was nonetheless drawn in by the strong family dynamic portrayed by the Marcantonios – the kind of rapport that they had with one another and the obvious love and passion that they all felt were extremely entertaining and moving, and were also something I could connect with. I believe that this is true, by and large, for Awake and Sing as well, and is thus another way in which Kushner has created a work that plays to the kind of family dynamic presented in the classics.

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