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Desperate Dykes and Dirty Politics

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There's no question that politics is a dirty business. Unless, of course, one makes the mistake of asking how dirty things can get. Greg Mitchell (author of The Campaign of the Century) notes that the first political attack ads to appear on the silver screen surfaced in movie theaters in 1934 when Upton Sinclair was running for Governor of California. The man who produced those ads was none other than MGM's Irving Thalberg.

Fast forward through eight decades of fear-based political advertising (don't forget the Swift Boat attacks on Senator John Kerry during his 2004 Presidential campaign) and one begins to wonder if political consultants, like former Senator Joseph McCarthy, have no sense of decency.

As one watches America's political landscape deteriorate into a glorified version of Lord of the Flies, one learns about dysfunctional creeps and scumbags such as Karl Rove and Michael Needham (the 31-year-old former President of Heritage Action who devised the game plan for 2013's government shutdown) and yearns for people with higher moral standards to enter politics (perhaps someone like Nellie Lovett or Jack the Ripper). Soon the concept of pursuing a career in public service gets redefined to match the following sentiment:

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Two of 2013's Bay area productions dealt with self-serving politicians who would do whatever it takes to win an election and, by extension, the ruthless enablers who pave their way to public office.

  • One drama plays it straight; the other goes for guffaws and belly laughs.
  • One is about a male politician and his aide trying to strip a former girlfriend of her potential political power to undermine his candidacy; the other deals with three incredible women determined to wrest power from the status quo and bend it to their own sense of justice.

Each play is a perverse testament to the power of opposition research. To suggest that one belongs on a stage and the other does not severely understates the quality of writing and stage direction that went into each production. Here's why.

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At least on paper, Kenneth Lin's political drama entitled Warrior Class would seem to be well-conceived, carefully plotted, and extremely cost-efficient to produce. The playwright describes his protagonist in the following manner:

"Julius Lee is a successful politician whose life could have taken a very different path after a bad breakup in college. Now that he is about to open new territories of success, will he be able to break through or will he be dragged down by the past and a world that isn't ready for him to fully succeed? Obama changed everything. Regardless of what you think of him as a president, no one can disagree that his political rise was meteoric, powerful, and game-changing. Politics and show business are both about the black art and magic of stardom. I think the Republicans and the Democrats are always looking for the next Obama. "

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Julius (Pun Bandhu) and Holly (Delia MacDougall) in a
scene from in Warrior Class (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Lin's three characters are carefully etched, with fully developed back stories:

  • Julius Weishan Lee (Pun Bandhu) is a handsome Chinese-American politician living in Queens, New York. A decorated veteran of the war in Kuwait, he has already defied the conventional political wisdom by running his first campaign on his own terms and being elected to the office of a New York Assemblyman. Julius is now being groomed by the GOP -- which sees him as a "Republican Obama" if not necessarily an "Asian-American Obama" -- for a possible seat in the House of Representatives. While Julius and his wife have been trying to have a baby through in vitro fertilization, he has been preoccupied with trying to line up the kinds of financial and political support that will get him sent to Washington. Although a political speech he gave has gone viral (helping to transform Julius into a photogenic, up-and-coming political figure), he needs to tidy up some parts of his past before they become a problem for his future.
  • Nathan Berkshire (Robert Sicular) is an old-time political operative acting as Julius's mentor. An accomplished "fixer," he is willing and able to pull strings with party hacks when necessary. But in politics, every favor comes with a price: a request for another pound of Julius's political flesh. Although Nathan may be an expert in opposition research and intimidation tactics, he doesn't like it when people refuse to play by his rules.
  • Holly Eames (Delia MacDougall) initially set out on a path that would lead to a legal career with political options. However, when she and Julius had a year-and-a-half-long affair in college, their breakup was far from pleasant. An immature, overly dramatic Julius turned into something of a stalker, leaving Holly to wonder whether she should fear for her life. Now, Nathan Berkshire wants her to sign a legal document which would immunize Julius against any possible damage from their past relationship.

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Julius (Pun Bandhu) and Nathan (Robert Sicular ) in a
scene from Warrior Class (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While some might see the workings of a tense political drama in Warrior Class, I did not. Some of that was due to the quality of Lin's writing; much of it was due to the slow pacing of Leslie Martinson's stage direction. With the show clocking in at an hour and 38 minutes (including an intermission), as I left the theatre I found an extremely perverse thought going through my mind. Despite Erik Flatmo's attractive scenery and a rotating turntable, Lin's play seemed to be lost on the stage of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

When a stage seems too big for a drama (or its characters), that sometimes means that the story is being told in the wrong medium. If all of the pregnant pauses, time spent on scene changes, nervous gesturing, and 15-minute intermission were eliminated, Warrior Class might be the perfect candidate for an hour-long made-for-television movie in which a camera's fluidity could give the actors more opportunities for internal acting and the story might seem less leaden. In his program note, Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks) writes that:

"If Watergate set the standard for political spying, if the Lewinsky affair established a low-water mark for recklessness, then the skeletons in the closet of Warrior Class seem modest by comparison. But as every campaign consultant knows, it is the impression, not the reality, that matters in the take-no-prisoners world of American politics. With the difference between win and lose rarely wider than a hanging chad, any sign of weakness can distort perception, thwart potential, and compromise our future. It is a familiar game of dirty tricks and dirtier revelations, a world of innuendos invented and indiscretions disclosed, a world that defines our warrior class politics: charismatic combatants, instant response teams, explosive denunciations, and vehement denials. That's why theatre is drawn to explore this world of votes and voting, blatant power and subtle persuasion. It's not politics that will determine what's ahead and how we'll get there, it's people. Turning their hopes, dreams, failings, and frustrations into art is what theatre is all about."

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Holly (Delia MacDougall) and Nathan (Robert Sicular)
in a scene from Warrior Class (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Lin raises some interesting questions:

  • Will Julius sell out to the party machine?
  • Will Holly compromise his chances as payback for shattering her self-confidence?
  • Is Nathan only doing this for the money?

The biggest surprise for me was how little I cared about any of Lin's characters. The opening night performance of Warrior Class seemed embarrassingly lame -- almost as exciting as the air popper Julius turns to for comfort in moments of stress. And I don't think that was because of the general disgust with what's currently happening in Congress.

* * * * * * * * * *

Bette Midler used to ask audiences what happens when you cross a donkey with an onion (sometimes you get an onion with really large ears; at other times, you get a piece of ass that just makes you want to cry). When Mel Brooks wrote The Producers, he was determined to humiliate Adolf Hitler by making the world see the Fuhrer as a total buffoon.

Sometimes the way to win an audience over to political intrigue is not with drama, but with extreme comedy. Because it's so hard to write a good farce these days (much less a truly inspired political farce), I tip my hat to Lauren Gunderson who has achieved the impossible with her new play, The Taming (which received a "rolling world premiere" from San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theater and Seattle's ArtsWest).

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Marilee Talkington, Kathryn Zdan, and Marilet Martinez
star in The Taming (Photo by: Tom Toro)

As with Warrior Class, Gunderson's play requires only three actors (although they take on numerous roles). Initially inspired by the women in Shakespeare's bawdy comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, they are appropriately named Bianca, Patricia, and Katherine.

  • Bianca (Marilet Martinez) is a liberal blogger with furious talents for whipping her followers on various social media platforms into a frenzy. Determined to save the "panda shrew," she is threatening to post compromising pictures of a certain senator in flagrante delicto to the Internet. Not the brightest hipster activist around, Bianca has been laboring under the misguided assumption that NRA stands for National Rodent Association. She is also holding her twin sister hostage in the armoire in her hotel room.
  • Patricia (Marilee Talkington) is the very butch chief of staff for the conservative, slightly dimwitted Republican Senator from Georgia who is currently seeking re-election. A pushy political operative who likes to think of herself as having bigger balls than any of the men in Congress, Patricia has a strict Christian conservative agenda and does not believe in compromise. Ever.
  • Katherine (Kathryn Zdan) appears at first to be a ditzy southern belle. But beneath all that blonde hair and sparkly glitter, Miss Georgia is a fierce patriot, well versed in the United States Constitution, who knows --- JUST KNOWS -- what America's Founding Fathers had in mind, y'all. A political operative gone rogue, she is not above slipping a couple of roofies into Bianca and Patricia's drinks. Imagine Michele Bachmann with a brain. Or the bastard love child of Sarah Palin and Rahm Emanuel.

Crowded Fire Theater's artistic director, Marissa Wolf (who directed this production with the madcap zeal of an I Love Lucy episode) previously worked with Gunderson on the rolling premiere of her 2011 farce entitled Exit, Pursued By A Bear. Wolf stresses that:

"Lauren's plays always offer rich roles for women and give tremendous agency to under-represented female voices in both a modern context and throughout history. She writes with startling humor and breathtaking poignancy. Her use of sharp, nuanced language is a splendid fit with Crowded Fire's aesthetic. It's a match made in heaven. Every time I hear her language out loud (the fast pace, the Southern cadence, the sharp-tongued phrases), I imagine the words leaping right off the page and giving me a sharp, flirty slap as they gallop down the street to spin circles around any person who encounters them.

Gunderson's smart and hilarious confrontations in The Taming engage us in questions about the erotics of gender and power in this bristling and contested landscape in which three women (and their earlier American avatars, from George Washington to James Madison) enter the jousting ring. The ferocity of political arguments acts as a magnet, drawing the characters ever closer to each other in their quest to be heard and understood. Gunderson's play inspires us to start listening freshly and more attentively to others' voices as we ask: How do we tame others' political views when they seem so ridiculous and harmful to our country's promise? Can we tame our own insistence on the absolute rightness of our cherished beliefs? How do we start creating a genuine dialogue?"

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Marilet Martinez as a liberal hipster/blogger in The Taming
(Photo by: Pak Han)

The Taming was originally commissioned and developed as part of Crowded Fire Theater's "The Matchbox: Commissioning and Developing New Plays Series." The staged premiere throws zingers into the audience with the ferocity of a lesbian tornado determined to flatten the opposition. While all three women appear to be borderline psychotic, in the second act they get caught up in a dream sequence in which Katherine becomes George and Martha Washington (as well as Dolley Madison) and Patricia becomes her political hero, James Madison.

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Kathryn Zdan as George Washington and Marilee Talkington
as James Madison in The Taming (Photo by: Pak Han)

Crowded Fire's production was fast, fierce, and ferociously funny (I found myself aching to see a second performance just to make sure I caught all the jokes). Even something as innocent as Martha Washington's reference to her big new hat was delivered in a manner that brought down the house. Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington, and Marilet Martinez all proved to be gifted physical comedians.

If you have the slightest interest in American history and/or the current political landscape, you won't want to miss Gunderson's brilliant political farce. Were he still alive, Gore Vidal would be green with envy!

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Kathryn Zdan as Miss Georgia in The Taming (Photo by: Pak Han)

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape