Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Theater of Politics

September has been a particularly intense month for political theater.  A.C.T. offered the West Coast premiere of  Tom Stoppard's  Rock 'n' Roll while comic genius Tina Fey has continued to lay waste to Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin.  

With his alarmingly erratic behavior -- including possible signs of senile dementia -- the increasingly dysfunctional Senator John McCain seems to be staging his own version of "'Tis Pity He's A Whore." After staging a major hissy fit and declaring that he would not participate in any debates until and unless the crisis on Wall Street had been solved, McCain then pretended to suspend his Presidential campaign, royally pissed off David Letterman (who was so mad that he used the CBS internal feed to show McCain getting made up for an appearance with Katie Couric when he should have been seated on Letterman's couch), and forced his ineffectual presence into the tense negotiations in Washington over the federal bailout of America's financial system.  

McCain's pathological lying and self-serving behavior caused Oliver Willis to comment that "America needs a President, not a drama queen."  Former Presidential candidate John Kerry opined that while McCain "said he was going to interrupt his campaign to come down and save the negotiations, most people believe what he did was interrupt the negotiations to come down and save his campaign."  

What's next on McCain's schedule?  A performance as the old, feeble, and demented King Lear wandering around the Arizona desert?  

Or a front-row seat at Bristol Palin's shotgun wedding?

By a curious coincidence, I listened to the first half of the Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain while en route to a performance at Berkeley's Ashby Stage. Without any visuals to shape my perceptions, what struck me most was the eerie sensation that I was listening to John McCain as Willy Loman in a radio dramatization of Arthur Milller's Death of a Salesman:  A pathetic fallen hero deteriorating into a boiling, contemptuous egomaniacal zero.

Thankfully, the production of Vera Wilde by the Shotgun Players that I attended had absolutely nothing to do with either John McCain or Bristol Palin.  Originally commissioned and produced by Seattle's Empty Space Theatre in 2002, the show derives its title from the first name of its Russian heroine, Vera Zasulich (a highly influential pre-Marxist revolutionary figure) and its British hero, playwright Oscar Wilde.  

Activists in their own ways, each was labeled as a "rebel," "outcast," "hero" and "convict." Each survived various political and social scandals and ended up being both celebrated and destroyed by their native societies.  The only link between them is that Oscar Wilde's first play, Vera and the Nihilists (a great name for a punk band), was inspired by Zasulich's fame and was essentially a miserable flop written by a miserable fop.

In this political and historical hodgepodge, the scenes in Vera's life move forward chronologically through time while the scenes in Oscar Wilde's life move backwards in time.  Musical numbers are supported by a surprising group of instruments:  guitar, violin, bass, banjo, mandolin, and percussion (no brass or keyboard instruments).

Alexandra Creighton as Vera Zasulich (Photo by Jessica Palapoli)

While Vera Wilde has some rough moments, I found it to be a much more interesting and dramatically satisfying piece than Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll.  Even though a great deal of political theory and history must be transmitted to the audience, Maya Gurant's energetic staging keeps the story moving as the political paths of the two protagonists whiz by on different continents and in different years.  

The musical score by Chris Jeffries felt a bit like a Victorian vaudeville, hampered only by the limited musical abilities of the two leads.  Alexandra Creighton tackled the role of Vera Zasulich as if it were Mother Courage; it took a while longer for Sean Owens to hit his stride as Oscar (although I loved his flamboyantly delivered assertion that "I'm not going to France -- I'm going to lunch!")  

Tyler Kent, Danielle Levin and Edward Brauer (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Mel Brooks) took on numerous small roles throughout the evening.  I especially liked Lisa Clark's unit set which, with its angled panels, looked like a pen-and-ink drawing of the wreckage of the World Trade Center adapted for the Victorian era.

Tyler Kent in Vera Wilde (Photo by Jessica Palapoli)

Shotgun Players is one of the more intimate and innovative small theater companies in the Bay area.  Their specialty is making plays (new or old) relevant to today's times. True to form, many of the political issues highlighted in Vera Wilde bore an eerie relevance to the current political situation in the United States.  

In December, the company will stage a modern day version of Shakespeare's MacBeth. In January, Shotgun Players has two special events planned:  First is a one-night only benefit performance of Beowulf at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theater before the show travels to New York for an off-Broadway engagement.  Then comes a monumental undertaking: John Barton's epic Tantalus spread over three evenings.  

Tickets are limited, so place your order now.

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