You could argue that there’s no such thing as political theater, that all theater is political, or that politics is politics and art is art. Yet playwrights, directors, and performers return again and again to political themes and topics in their work -- sometimes for didactic purposes, sometimes to challenge specific instances of corruption, and sometimes with the great hope that what they say will help to change the direction of the country.
It might be naïve for an art form that lacks the reach of television, music, or the movies to think in such grandiose terms. There are moments, though, when a work for the stage consciously transforms the debate, as was the case for The Normal Heart and Angels in America during the AIDs crisis, and is the case today for Hamilton -- a musical that palpably demonstrates the power of live theater to upend our country’s perceptions of race and the founding fathers.
Those same impulses are at work right now on Bay Area stages, which are bursting with attempts to be political. In this conflicted and fraught election year, we should applaud all our theater artists who take on such a quixotic quest, even when they go down in flames. There is hope and intelligence in failure, too.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe's Schooled
Watching Schooled, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s latest attempt at political satire, made me think that they should just stop. Trudging through its 57th year of free political theater in Bay Area parks, the company feels caught in a vicious cycle of delivering the same product over and over again.
We get the warmed over 70’s funk before the show, the easy villains (a Donald Trump figure who wants to take over the school board), and the feisty heroes and heroines who fight against corporate forces and sinister conspiracies (an African-American video game nerd and a long-time history teacher). The formula is so lazy that it feels like a right-wing plot to demoralize the left.
And yet there’s an audience for it. Every summer they come out and cheer. An old school teacher standing next to me kept on whispering that he wanted to believe. “This is the stuff I would like to believe in, stuff like this," he said. I’m not making fun of him; the fact that we come year after year speaks of a deep civic engagement on the part of Mime Troupe audiences. The problem is that the Mime Troupe has been holding that engagement in trust without paying it back. They should try a real play next summer.
'Schooled' plays in Bay Area Parks through Monday, Sep. 5. For information and tickets click here.
3Girls Theater Company's Low Hanging Fruit
Robin Bradford’s Low Hanging Fruit takes the domestic family drama and twists it inside out. Rather than blood relations, the relations here are forged by a series of social ties. And those ties have deep, political resonance: four homeless women, all Iraq war veterans, live in a barracks-like encampment on the streets.
The enemy is all around: the police, petty criminals, and, worst of all, a seductive and mean pimp who knows just when to attack. When one of the women brings a 14 year-old girl into the camp, it’s an act of kindness and a break in protocol. Bradford’s set-up is striking, a living room without a house that’s both a symbol of and actual war zone.
Bradford’s ability to represent everyday life as an adjunct of political forces is exemplary and the 3Girls Theater Company production is well-acted and paced. But with no real philosophical beliefs -- a general sense of humanity doesn’t count -- the dramatist succumbs to melodrama and mawkish poetry. I feel that we should have had so much more here.
'Low Hanging Fruit' plays at Z Below in San Francisco through Saturday, Jul. 30. For information and tickets click here.
John Leguizamo's Latin History for Morons
John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is stuck somewhere between play and nightclub act. The pairing shouldn't work, except that Leguizamo is an alluring performer and has managed, maybe by mistake, to come up with one stunning political insight.
The show is ostensibly about Leguizamo’s attempt to help his 13-year-old son with a school project. They must find an actual Latin hero, which for Leguizamo father and son proves harder than one might imagine.
What’s arresting is the way Morons brings the comedy club to the theater. And where the play doesn’t hold up, the raucous politically-incorrect jokes save the day. They land fast and hard and keep the Berkeley Rep audience off guard. We don't have time to think or imagine what’s coming next, and that works to the piece’s benefit.
In a stunning reversal of homework and audience expectations, Leguizamo’s son decides that there are no Latin heroes, only Latin losers, and that the losers make history. And in rousing fashion, he declares he’s proud of all the Latin losers before him, including his father, and looks forward to joining them all some day in the pantheon of Latin failure. I keep on thinking about that idea and it just keeps on getting richer and richer.
'Latin History for Morons' plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Sunday, Aug. 14. For information and tickets click here.
Dan Hoyle's The Real Americans
Dan Hoyle isn’t the star that Leguizamo is, but he’s his equal as a performer -- a deft mimic with a touch that is as devastating as it is light. In The Real Americans, Hoyle decides to leave the bubble of Bay Area liberalism to discover the "Real America," or at least the America that is politically and socially at odds with his own sheltered Bay Area upbringing. It’s a funny journey that takes the writer-performer to a number of cities throughout the South. He meets people, talks to them, and sometimes reports back to his friends, who seem to spend all their time in the most precious of the Bay Area’s many precious restaurants.
It’s a fun show, but ultimately a dead end, both politically and aesthetically. Hoyle is the one person Hoyle doesn’t mimic. And after a bit you feel as if The Real Americans isn’t about real Americans, but rather Hoyle's belief that he’s more reasonable, smarter, and deeper than every American he meets. It’s the type of Hollywood narcissism that Leguizamo sidesteps, and then you realize that mimicry is the last talent our political theater needs right now. Unthinking contempt should be left to the politicians.
'The Real Americans' plays at The Marsh in San Francisco through Saturday, Aug. 27. For tickets and information click here.
There’s no contempt in Suzanne Bradbeer’s Confederates at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. It’s one of those well-intentioned dramas that earnestly tell us what’s wrong with the system, which in this case is political journalism's gradual embrace of the TMZ style. It’s slow to start, but Bradbeer’s play is much better than it ever should be.
Everything is jerry-rigged here: from the flaky presidential candidate’s "art major" daughter caught in the throes of making young adult mistakes, to the amoral, tough as nails, female reporter, to the ambitious, young, male journalist who falls into a story tailor-made to advance his career.
I didn’t believe any of it and yet when these three characters start arguing for their lives, reputations, and careers, I listened. They’re all cardboard creations, but the arguments are anything but. And it tells us something about the aesthetics of politics: the fights in Confederates actually make these caricatures seem real, human, and alive.
'Confederates' plays at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto through Sunday, Aug. 7. For tickets and information click here.