The theatre of politics is pretty obvious in this presidential campaign year, but politics in theatre — that is, political and social issues of current concern as subject matter — is also especially evident on North Coast stages in 2008.
Several plays written in another time encouraged reflection on pertinent issues of today — and were likely chosen with that in mind. The year began with Marat/Sade at NCRT, which dealt with political violence, totalitarian repression and the gap between rich and poor. Twelve Angry Men at Ferndale Rep reminded us of fragile principles in our justice system, and the folly of discarding them. Dell'Arte revived The Golden State, which also touches upon economic disparities as well as perennial cultural issues, and North Coast Prep presented The Crucible, reminding us of the contagion of fear, especially when it is manipulated for political and economic gain.
Now Ferndale Rep is doing a musical that has the distinction of leading to several Supreme Court decisions concerning censorship and political speech. Today's younger audiences for Hair may be a little baffled by some of the issues of central importance in the story, such as the major plot point of burning a draft card, and all the fuss about ... hair. Both had immense symbolic importance in the '60s, and caused outrage and violence in the public sphere, and within families. Still, this play's relevance to current issues of war, protest and repression are obvious, unfortunately.
Other current social and political issues were clearly on the minds of second-year students of the Dell'Arte International School's MFA Ensemble in the piece they created and presented for the first time last weekend.
Between Two Winters was the result of an eight-week process that began with students studying the nature of tragedy (Aristotle's Poetics applied to Shakespeare's Hamlet.) But when it came time to create a theatre piece, they were directed to find a subject in the newspaper.
According to Brian Moore, the student who directed the piece, the story they selected was about a woman who was approached by the man who had raped her 20 years before. He asked her forgiveness, and she refused. Instead she initiated a prosecution, which caused controversy and criticism.
But in the process of writing the script, "It's taken on a much different life of its own," Moore said, a few days before opening night. "From that starting point, we've ended up in a much different place."
Now the story takes place in Kuwait in the early 1990s, where the mayor of a city in Montana goes to honor the hero who saved lives during the oil field fires set by the retreating Iraqi forces in Gulf War I. The mayor is the woman who was raped 20 years before; the hero was her rapist, who has been in hiding ever since.
There are more moral and plot complications. The mayor is "a pretty notorious figure," said Ronlin Foreman, the school's director of pedagogical studies, who supervised the project. "She is a hyper politician with aspirations to the Senate, and has a real quality of vengeance in her life." She also has a daughter for whom she also has political ambitions — the child resulting from that rape.
Where all this leads was still taking shape when I spoke with Moore and Foreman. But for Foreman, the rationale for applying the tragic form to contemporary events is clear. "We have a surfeit of tragic occurrences," he said, "but tragedy in our day and age is a hard thing to come by. We think that we're coming into a time when an admission of tragedy, of tragic flaw, is important."
"Tragedy is a form that at its root pits the rational and ordered world against the world of terror and chaos," according to a text these students use. "It deals with the human drive to step out of the chorus, to stand for and proceed into the hero's journey ..."
For this project, the chorus — which in Greek tragedy is the voice of the community that narrates and comments on the story — is represented by the media. "We're planning to have a television camera onstage, broadcasting to monitors," Moore said, "because we're exploring how the media can make one of the characters the protagonist one moment, but suddenly shift to side with a different character."
But the shifting chorus as well as the moral complexities of the situation challenges the classical definition of tragedy. "It's hard a lot of the time to see the actions of these characters as sins, in the way that the Greeks did," Moore explained. "We have a much different understanding of morality. We don't bend to the will of the gods the same way the ancient Greeks did."
So, when asked, "Who is the tragic hero? What is the tragic flaw?" they both laughed a little uncomfortably. "Well, that's what we're working on right now," said Moore.
Applying the tragic sense to these contemporary events remains an essential part of this exploration. "It's a time when we say that it is important for someone to step out of the chorus — out of the people, as leaders — as people who expect to do something to change things," said Foreman.
Though this production ran only one weekend at Dell'Arte, Between Two Winters is scheduled for a mid-May run at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. This coming weekend, Foreman goes from the tragic to the ridiculous with his first-year students in Flops Popping, the popular spring clown show. Twenty-four students in various combinations cavort on the Carlo stage, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.
Another popular annual spring event is the HSU Ten Minute Play Festival, which this year celebrates its 10th birthday. Coordinator Margaret Thomas Kelso (who began the festival in 1998) says there are an unusual number of plays this year with social and political themes, including terrorism and interrogation, war and genocide. (Plus the usual comedies and fantasies, of course.) The Festival begins this weekend, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 in Gist Hall Theatre, and continues next weekend, May 1-3.