Sunday, December 14, 2014

Play: The Center Cannot Hold

The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan, Directed by Bill Rauch, through 4 January, 2015, Seattle Rep.

When last we looked in on LBJ, he had won re-election, transforming himself from an accidental president to a man with a mandate for change. This is what happened next and how it all went to hell.

We are back, but with a difference. The men in charge of their own destiny are suddenly being driven by undesired circumstances. LBJ (Jack Willis, again throwing off good-old-boy homilies with hard-nosed arm-twisting) wants to push his Great Society, while news from Viet Nam keeps interrupting his narrative. Martin Luther King (channeled by Kenajuan Bentley), his racial counterpoint, loses control of the Movement to more radical elements. Meanwhile, RFK (Danforth Comins) hangs out like a shark at the corner drug store, waiting to make his move, and while George Wallace becomes less relevant, Dick Nixon returns from the political dead, looking for weakness (both played only slightly more unctuously than in life by Jonathan Haugen).

And in the first act, you get LBJ and MLK at their best. LBJ out-maneuvers both Wallace and the AMA, while MLK walks the perilous line in Selma between dealing with his own supporters and wresting potential concessions from the White House. But as the play progresses, things get worse. For MLK, he loses the thread when he leaves his southern powerbase, first in LA during the Watts riots and then in Chicago in a power play with Hizzoner, Richard M. Daley. For LBJ, the was is a canker at the heart of his administration, where making the least-bad decision only ups the stakes and turns allies against him. The two men, potential allies, come apart as King speaks out against Viet Nam and LBJ feels betrayal from all sides.

The stage, like the country, comes apart. The rising benches of the stage, populated by the other actors when not part of the performance, is shattered in jagged, smoking rubblet littered with protest signs. As LBJ gives approval to Hoover for illegal surveillance of the antiwar movement, tape recorders sprout. The later hallmarks of the Nixon administration are all in place by the end of the play - the repression, the internal spying, the out of control war. All it needed was Nixon to step into the role, riding a tide of rebellion against Johnson's attempt to transform the country to something better. The stage that Nixon takes command of is trashed, and the final image is of the new president, flashing victory signs as LBJ moves into retirement.

This is a history, one of many centered on the era. And by >a< history, I mean that there is only so much that can be placed in a single play, even one of three hours. Wallace vanishes from the play's narrative as Haugen transforms into Nixon, his spiritual successor, but Wallace did not go gently into that good night, but rather taking five states of the Deep South on his own in the '68 election, and splitting the Democratic party for Nixon's "southern strategy".Further, both MLK and RFK make their exits with their last words, in flashback. After going into great detail about the '64 campaign in All the Way, the '68 campaign fizzles out as a major contention point as soon as LBJ hands it over to an overmatched Humphrey.

And by the same token, to glibly quote  Twain, history doesn't repeat, but it sure does rhyme, and we can see echoes of Selma in Ferguson, of Viet Nam in Iraq, and in budgetary maneuvering to defund the president's leadership in the War on Poverty and the ACA. The path of progress is never clear nor unchallenged, and only with the longest of views does it seem inevitable.

The play itself is a tragedy, of a man who gets everything he wants and discovers that it is not enough to effect the change he wants. It is tough going in places, particularly where the ugly face of racism shows in Alabama, California, and Illinois. It is easier to take if you understand the first chapter, and the Rep is running both plays, sometimes on the same say, so you can "Broadway" you experience by doing All The Way in the afternoon, and The Great Society in the evening. And it is recommended - these a risking plays in the modern theatrical world - large casts, long running times, big issues. But they are both worth seeing.

More later,

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Monday, November 24, 2014

Play: LBJ Rising, Redux

All The Way, Robert Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch, Seattle Rep, through Jan 4.

Hey, wait a minute, didn't you already review this play? Yes I did, when it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Here it is, here, and just about everything I said then applies now. 

Here's the short version, LBJ conducts a master class on arm-twisting, deal-making, cajoling and berating, tracking the period from his ascendance as an "accidental president" to his triumphant re-election as Landslide Lyndon. Jack Willis burns up the stage as LBJ, a critical mass of both personal power and insecurity. The late Mike Nichols stated that every scene is a seduction, a fight, or a negotiation - with Willis' LBJ every scene is all three at the same time. Peter Frechette is a positively twitchy Humphrey, Jonathan Haugen is an explosive Wallace, and Kenajuan Bentley is a calm MLK whose own challenges threaten to overwhelm him. You can watch Bentley's face in the wake of Mississippi Burning losing control of his narrative, and his political wrangling mirrors LBJ's own.

So what has changed from the OSF version? Much and little. The cast is mostly intact from OSF, though in the more intimate housing of the Bagley Wright, their performances seem more broader and  animated than earlier. Yeah, I just said the Bagley Wright is intimate, and it is, compared to the pitlike Bowmer in Ashland. In the Bowmer, we have an outhrust stage into a large amphitheater, giving a top-down view, while the B-W pitches up to the actors on stage. There feels like their are fewer actors on the stage here than in Oregon, but they are more packed together, and the setting - chairs on risers occupied by actors who are not occupying center stage, is more looming  from the seats in Seattle. 

The play itself is there as well, all the beats in place, but some of the story has evolved since I first saw it. A tale of young LBJ in his first campaign is gone, and the play culminates with a comparison between MLK's Nobel Prize and LBJ calling out his own party for its racist politics. And yes, there feels like more mention of Progressive Republicans fighting for equality in this presentation as well, creating both a clarity of division and the vibe that the world has changed between then and now. So it is an evolving thing as well, and gets stronger in it evolution.

The other noticeable thing was the house was packed, even unto the balcony, which was not always the case for other plays. Usually this is the time of year when you do something safe - a musical or another version of Inspecting Carol, but taking a large, sprawling poltical play like All The Way with its huge cast is a risk, and one that looks like it pays off. I recommend not only this play, but its sequel, which will also hit the boards at the Rep next month, The Great Society. I've had a chance to read the play in advance (as part of a class) and have to say, it just gets better.

More later,

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Political Desk - Results

Yes, it is Saturday and the elections were on Tuesday. But the nature of Washington State's elections are they are all-mail elections, and the deadline for postmarks are Tuesday. So measures that are leading on Tuesday Night then become questionable by Friday, and there is usually one item that is still hanging fire, waiting to resolve. The Seattle Times publishes a yearly gripe that ballots should arrive on Tuesday as opposed to being postmarked, but really, its not about when the votes come in so much as counting them all. 

Mostly, the election was about returning incumbents. We may grouse about Olympia and DC, but when push comes to shove, we want to keep OUR guys and wonder why the rest of you keep re-electing the same corrupt schmoes over and over. On the national level, the election was either a biting condemnation of indiscriminate peace and prosperity, or a strong endorsement for more of the gridlock that has paralyzed us so far. Or something like that.

On to the local stuff:

Initiative 1351 (Minimum Class Size) - MAYBE - This is the one that is still unresolved, as a close gap on Election Night has closed and then flipped. Given that both the people AND the state supreme court are both leaning on Olympia to do something about education funding, maybe we will see some movement (Hah! I keed. The Senate is in the hands of the GOP, and would rather go to jail than spend money on kids). 
Initiative 951 (Ban Gun Confiscation) - NO
Initiative 954 (Close the Gun Loophole) - YES

Advisory Referendum 8 and 9 -  MAINTAIN

US Rep, 9th District - Adam Smith

Washington State Supreme Court:
Position Four - Charles Johnson
Position Seven - Debra L. Stevens

State Legislature 11th District, Position 2 - Chris Bergquist

Kent Position A (New Police Station) - YES, BUT NOT ENOUGH - The measure got a majority, which in non-Bizarro democracies would mean it wins, but not only did it need to win, it needed to win big -  with 60% percent of the vote. This is in a country where 52% is considered a "landslide". So the local police are left hanging on this. I recommend that the natives of Kent drive slowly and avoid all local speed traps - just until we sort all this out.

More later,

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Hey, A Signing!

So, I've already besieged the people on Facebook and Google+, but to fill out the trifecta, I want everyone to know that we have a signing this evening, at 7 PM, and the University Book Store for the Kobold Guide to Combat, one of our series of essay collections on various gaming subjects. It promises to be interesting, with Wolfgang Baur, Chris Pramas, Steve Winter, myself, and editor Janna Silverstein speaking up on the subject, so check it out here.

More later, after they count more votes.