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All politics is local, sure—which implies a lot of traveling for anyone who’d like to create a little change. Lucky for us, there’s the Potomac Theatre Festival, the annual showcase of politically charged theater jointly produced by the Olney Theatre Center and the Potomac Theatre Project—Olney’s longtime purveyor of stylish political drama and “alternative theater in residence” since 1998. Summer after summer, the PTF serves up shows with bite, shows with a point, and sometimes shows (last year’s Crave comes to mind) that can shatter your comfortable perspective in the space of an afternoon. If this year’s offerings aren’t the boldest ever, they’re all savvy enough to make you think a minute—and at 10 bucks a pop, they’re the thinking Washingtonian’s alternative to the mind-numbing summer menu at the multiplex.
Political junkies will get the most out of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, a pairing seemingly chosen to underscore the plain fact that power has corrupted for at least five centuries now. In the older play, a second banana elevated to a position of absolute authority breaks his own inflexible rules the first time a pretty girl crosses his path, then orchestrates a coverup; in Vidal’s ’50s-era campaign chronicle, a principled politician gets the chance to derail the candidacy of an opponent he knows is bad for the country—by employing the same dirty tactics he deplores in the other guy. In both plays, a virtuous individual gives in (however temporarily) when a good end seems to require a dubious means—and in both stories, the price of decency is predictably high.
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You probably wouldn’t get that reading from the original Measure, of course, but adapter-director Chris Hayes understands that this problematic fable has as much cruelty as comedy in it. The disguised duke who intervenes throughout to derail Angelo’s schemes and engineer the happy ending for pious Isabella, for instance—why is he so blind to the emotional consequences of his testing games? Taking a cue from Shakespeare’s fascination with disguise as a revealer of character, Hayes strips away the play’s subplots and focuses his 80-minute reduction squarely on the machinations that start with Angelo’s rise to power and end when the duke sends him off to meet that Old Testament justice the title promises—and he interpolates a twist calculated to point up the play’s callous treatment of women and force viewers to re-evaluate everything that’s come before.
The liberal-minded point is well-taken—marriage, even to the duke who’s saved her from a sexual predator, might not seem like such a happy ending for a woman who’s pledged herself to a nunnery, after all—but Hayes doesn’t do enough to soften up the audience for the bomb he’s preparing to drop. The few clues he scatters along the way—the practiced blandness of the deceptions perpetrated by James Slaughter’s urbane prime minister, the duke’s oddly offhand treatment of the characters he’s supposedly helping—don’t really set up the staging twist he imposes on the final lines, and in the end the whole business feels a little forced.
It’s swift and mostly sure up until that last scene, though; Slaughter, particularly, handles himself with confidence and the language with substantial ease, and Hayes has found a promising young Shakespearean in Cassidy Freeman, one of the Middlebury College students who traditionally populate PTF shows. What’s onstage at Olney isn’t a full Measure, by any means, but it’s an intriguing attempt to use the play as a yardstick for sizing up our own times.
Richard Romagnoli doesn’t have to try as hard with The Best Man, of course: Gore Vidal’s deftly crafted, deeply felt campaign chronicle, a product of the late ’50s, offers a vision of a terminally corrupted system in which political power has become an end rather than a means, along with the mildly despairing suggestion that if there’s a solution, it’s a dark-horse answer, an unknown quantity, a notion we haven’t discovered. There’s something proud and sorrowful in the tarnished righteousness of its main character—Paul Morella’s would-be president William Russell—and something all too familiar about the guy opposing him for the nomination. Nigel Reed’s Joseph Cantwell (delicious name, that) is an empty suit just charismatic enough to make plausible his argument that what gets done is the only measure of a politico, just ruthless enough that you wonder whether he wouldn’t, in fact, make a less uncertain chief executive than Morella’s introspective egghead. Given the choice the country faces in November, that’s a nervous-making question.
Unfortunately, Romagnoli may not have tried quite hard enough: His staging is as unbalanced as a Reform Party candidate, with unseasoned actors and shabby design work stealing focus from the solid performances at its core. Just as off-putting is the odd updating: Here, the LBJ-ish former president whose endorsement both candidates covet is a woman (Vivienne Shub), as are various campaign managers and senatorial sidelights. Given the play’s very specific 1960 setting, its subplot about the relative merits of the candidates’ wives (a believably brittle Julie-Ann Elliott, a pleasingly plastic Liz Myers), and its observations (ironic, to be sure) about the proper place of women, the change turns out to be nearly as infelicitous as Shub’s bizarrely unsuitable outfits, which costume designer Franklin Labovitz appears to have borrowed from a particularly tasteless conservative drag queen.
The second act feels desultory, true, a gesture toward evening-length scope in a play that could be a one-act—the stakes and the terms of the debate are evident well before intermission, as is the outcome. It’s interesting, though, to be reminded that Vidal once thought the system might actually be fixable. These days, he sounds so thoroughly disgusted with what he likes to call the United States of Amnesia that The Best Man seems like comparatively tame stuff. Still, with the stench of the Iraq war strong in our nostrils, even a halfhearted blast from the admirable old bomb-thrower is a bracing reminder of the principles that ought to govern our politics.
Judith Thompson’s Perfect Pie may be less overtly political than the rest of the PTF rep, which includes the Copenhagen still playing on Olney’s mainstage and the upcoming production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ kaleidoscopically confrontational Venus, but it’s no less tricky. Memory plays always are: The constant refrain of “Remember when?” can grow tiresome pretty quickly, and the sight of Young Whoever frolicking through a warmly lit recollection while Adult Whoever sits pensively upstage is one veteran playgoers have learned to grin and bear.
Nice, then, that the Canadian author of White Biting Dog and The Crackwalker can deploy these devices (and hoarier ones besides) and still serve up a pretty moving story. In Perfect Pie, a farm wife spends a day with an old friend, or maybe just with her memory, reflecting on the chain of events that ended their childhoods and tore them apart. The play’s affection for the everyday, taken together with Thompson’s knack for naturalism punctuated by moments of rhapsody, makes their reveries seem honest and yet lyrical, even when what they’re remembering is unrelentingly brutal. Come to think of it, Thompson’s interest in how adolescent torments shape adult lives is in fact pretty political in a post-Columbine world.
Lead actors Helen Hedman and MaryBeth Wise humanize what might seem mere authorial representations of youthful cruelty and adult complacency, and the quartet of younger actors who represent their earlier selves acquit themselves nicely. (Particular kudos go to Lily Balsen, who brings a strange magnetism to her tormented teenage character.) And director Cheryl Faraone steers things with a reasonably sure hand; the pace flags only once or twice during those frequent flashbacks, and the mood when Wise and Hedman are onstage is never less than palpably intense. Perfect Pie isn’t absolutely without flaw, no—and neither it nor anything else at Olney this summer has the hair-raising, soul-cleansing passion of Crave and other landmark PTF offerings—but it’s undeniably nourishing stuff. In a city that thrives on the minutiae of politics, it’s always good to get a clear-eyed look at the big picture. CP