At The Oregon
Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, the world premiere production by TonyTaccone
of David Edgar's two play cycle "Continental Divide" examines both
the Democratic and Republican sides of the final few days of the gubernatorial
campaign of a large, fictitious Western state. The overarching theme is how
we compromise our ideals and values one at a time, little by little, to achieve
victory, what does that victory then mean, what is it really worth, and did
we actually win at all? One young character, a radical tree-sitting environmentalist
named Smokebomb even says her father told her he wished he could be himself
at twenty and walk into the room and not be totally appalled at what he sees.
The two candidates are Democrat
Rebecca McKeene, a former 1960's radical who once participated
in the takeover of an ROTC building and raised a Vietcong flag over it. Republican
Sheldon Vine was a member of a Libertarian group called Young Americans for
Freedom but was run out for advocating and counseling young men to avoid the
draft. Both are now in their 50's and, one would think, much more reasonable...or
would that be opportunistic and malleable. Indeed, the entire electoral process
has changed in that both candidates, instead of mounting anything but token
grass roots campaigns, spend the vast majority of their time fundraising. They
both agree that grassroots only comes into play in a close election, and until
the last few days, this wasn't.
This election is further
complicated and arguably, ultimately defined by two external events. One is
Proposition 92, an obscure ballot measure that requires anyone who registers
or re-registers to vote, or anyone applying for a government job to swear a
loyalty oath, that says, among other things, "...I am not a member or supporter
organization which pursues its ends by force..." This has suddenly become
a hot button issue with the shooting deathof a young environmentalist, Sarah
Jane Polowski, by a Latino security guard, as she broke into a university lab
with a chain saw to cut down genetically engineered poplars. Neither candidate
will take a stand on either of these issues.
The two plays are "Mothers
Against" and "Daughters of the Revolution." They can stand alone
very well or be seen together. As stand alones, "Daughters of the Revolution"
is probably the most satisfying as it takes us on a sweeping journey through
the radicalism of the 1960's. Seen together, "Mothers Against" clarifies
a lot of the relationships and ties the loose ends. So it's best to see it first.
I saw "Daughters..." first, but we'll start here with "Mothers
It takes place over the course of a weekend at the wooded family estate of Mitchell Vine, campaign manager for his brother, Sheldon. Most agree that he should be the real candidate, but for various reasons it's Sheldon. This weekend, they're preparing for the only debate, which is just over two days away and a few days before the election. Vine has come twelve points back to close within 2.5% points among likely voters. Mitchell and campaign advisor, Don D'Avanzo are calling for blood. When they find out McKeene's line of the day is "dune buggies," Don quips "We're Republicans, we believe in the right of Americans to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in any class of powered vehicle they choose." Sheldon's making calls for money, which he says is humiliating. Someone quips, "The alternative is public funding," he says, "How about spending limits?" Caryl Marquez, the pollster wants him to "tailor his message to the voters, rather than convince the voters of the worthiness of his message."
Into this den of Republicanism walks daughter Deborah, who's named after their sister who died of cancer in college. She will appear later, as will the daughter, who has been "protecting the planet from the armed fist of the fascist state" as the treesitter Smokebomb. She's dressed accordingly, with a T-shirt reading "Another Eco-terrorist for Peace." Sheldon loves his daughter and points out that they disagree on everything. After asking her a few questions it comes to, does she support what Sarah Jane Polowski did? She doesn't answer, and Sheldon mentions that she can still vote, move, and apply for a government job. Prop. 92 would take those rights away.
Back to the pollster. A
survey of soft Republicans and Undecideds all rate Sheldon high on integrity.
He has resisted repeated calls for a negative campaign on principles. They name
several issues, where they support him, including Tough on Drugs, Anti-Abortion,
and Support of Prop. 92. Sheldon is opposite on all of those, but by virtue
of an uncontested primary, has not had to take a stand. The voters just assume
he takes those time honored Republican stands. Despite repeated badgering, he
will not come out for Prop. 92 or Sarah Jane
Polowski, even though he's assured by everyone that it will put him over the
top. He has promised himself, and is convinced that he can "run a principled
Republican campaign without selling out to the country club Republicans on economics
or values." He wants to win on his own terms. They tell him it's a winning
game with a losing strategy. In fact, on issues like drugs and gays, he's closer
now to where McKeene used to be.
Lorianne Weiner is a conservative
radio commentator, and the stand-in for McKeene at the debate rehearsal. Her
boyfriend was a member of the same radical group as McKeene's campaign manager
Blair Lowe. She knew about the VC flag incident, but doesn't have a photo. She
wants Sheldon to turn Prop. 92 back on McKeene by at least saying that it's
the left who wants the oaths because what they say isn't true. She mentions
that "however loopy his opinions, at least Shel's straight." She rails
that they want state regulation of everything except incest and illegal immigration.
The pit bulls finally meet in small groups over the course of Saturday night and plot out a strategy they think will win. Lorianne thinks he'll junk his and adopt theirs. Mitchell has found out that a picture exists of McKeene raising the VC flag, and they will use it to blackmail her into coming out in opposition to Prop. 92. Appeals for the future of the party, state and those who fought for him don't win Sheldon over, but finally an appeal by his brother to family convinces him, albeit halfheartedly and with many reservations, to compromise in the end, in this riveting production of the world premiere production of "Mothers Against' at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland.
The Democratic side of "Continental Divde" is "Daughters of the Revolution." Tony Taccone directs a riveting journey of a group of radical political idealists back through their defining moment and actions in the '60's, a period covering roughly 1965 - 1975, and how it effects their past, present, and immediate future. Everything begins at Michael's fifty-fifth birthday party. His significant other and friends all read the script from a play which turns out to be his FBI file. He had never gotten it, and Abby thought it would be a good joke. It is until they get to the part about "Bad Moon Rising Revolutionary Collective." At this, Michael jumps up and demands to see the actual file. They had plotted a kidnapping in a scheme to use Blair's college roommate, Deborah Vine, sister to Mitchell and Sheldon, as ransom to get Black Panther Tommy Lee Traiton out of prison. He was killed in an attempted escape before, though, and it never came off. Like the rest of them, Michael had been active in winning rights for blacks, women, and youth, and disrupting the military effort in Vietnam. One day, however, he woke up and discovered he had a mortgage, car payments, and family to support, so he dropped out and became a teacher at a community college for nineteen years before becoming a dean. His wife eventually took his son and left to move back east, and he felt like he had achieved nothing in life. Upon reading the file, he discovered the group had been betrayed by one of the members, and it became his obsession to find out who.
Rebecca McKeene is the Democratic candidate for Governor. It's her election to lose. She's running on a platform of fiscal responsibility, having balanced a budget in the billions as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Environmental Protection, and all the usual positions. In the 60's she was Michael's girlfriend, and together, as members of Students for a Democratic Society, they participated in the takeover of an ROTC building. Rebecca's campaign manager, Blair, and a top donor Troy were both conspirators with Michael in Bad Moon.
The scene changes are extremely
dramatic video images with powerful electronic music. They have scenes of Prop.
92, political ads, '60's anti-war demonstrations, and more. The former Black
Panther, Kwesi is training grass roots political
activists. He talks about how revolution is illegal. Therefore, this country
was founded on illegal actions. He and JC point out that all of the progress
of the '60's was illegal actions, like lunch counter sit-in's, Rosa Parks refusing
to give up her seat on the bus, refusing induction...all illegal actions. JC
chips in, "sort of like Florida, huh?"
Next Michael visits Ira.
He was the firebrand of the group, but has become an extreme right wing conservative,
since his daughter was murdered by some gang members she was trying to help.
Her name was Harriet, after Harriet Tubman. Ira now knows he was wrong. Like
the rest of them, his family were communists and socialists, and he had concluded
New Left was the same as the old Left in tye-dyes and bellbottoms. Besides,
he was in the Midwest when the meeting took place, so he couldn't be the snitch.
He lives with Lorianne Weiner who had been his daughter's college roommate.
Michael finds Claudia in a grove of redwoods with treesitters. She has been a fugitive for the past 30 or so years. She tells how she has changed her identity numerous times. She has also saved the picture of candidate Rebecca running up the VC flag, and gives it to him. Her group is non-violent, but they don't oppose people who advocate violence in the environmental cause. She wants Michael to persuade Rebecca with the photo, to oppose Prop. 92.
The guard said he had shot Sarah Jane Polowski once, hitting the saw-wielding eco-terrorist in the chest. Claudia claims that Sarah Jane dropped the chain saw at the first confrontation, then turned and ran. The guard shot and missed four times, the girl fell, raised herself up, turned towards him, and he killed her from about eight feet. Claudia had cut the fence, was about twenty yards away, and recovered the other four casings to prove it. When Michael reports this to Blair, Troy says that if it was Joe Six Pack, Rebecca could condemn it and call for an investigation. The problem is, the guard is Latino, a constituency that they need to win the election, and they can't risk losing those voters.
Kwesi urges Michael to use
the pictures of Rebecca to right that wrong. He points out that his group won't
work for her because she has moved father to the right than the Republican on
this. When confronted, Rebecca says a woman needs to take a tough stand on crime
to become a governor. She has changed a number of her beliefs over the years
to achieve this, including her opposition to the death penalty.
As the debate is about to
begin and Rebecca is studying her positions, "I'm for this, my opponent
is for that..." It's almost like a parody. Michael tells her to oppose
Prop. 92 and gives her the reasons and words to do it. She shoots back, "Leadership?
You want me to be a leader?..." We're told that "there are no angels,
but we will be better people if we imagine there are." Michael muses that
how he lived his life had less to do with his ideals and more and more with
his regrets. In the end, he has to choose, does he right the wrong, or wake
up in the morning with Sheldon Vine as governor. Inch by inch, mile by mile,
one value and one ideal at a time. This ideal has to go to get the nomination,
those to win the election. Once elected, she won't be the first one term governor
since W.W.II, so everything needs to be directed towards winning re-election.
Finally in the second term she can govern, but by then there's no compass left
but political expediency.
Interestingly, David Edgar
also wrote the play, "Albert Speer." Though I haven't seen or read
it, I'm very familiar with Speer's life, and that's exactly how he described
how "a sane and decent man becomes a Nazi." This tremendous production
of "Daughters of the Revolution" continues at the Oregon Shakespeare
Festival, Ashland through July 13, then the cycle, "Continental Divide"
moves to The Berkeley Repertory Theatre November 6 - December 28.
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