‘Divide’ and conquer

Powerful political dramas highlight Ashland’s new season

STRATEGY SESSION A discussion of the campaign elicits varying responses from Sheldon Vine (Bill Geisslinger, standing), Don D’Avanzo (Michael Elich), Connie Vine (Robynn Rodriguez, right) and Caryl Marquez (Vilma Silva, front) in David Edgar’s Mothers United.

STRATEGY SESSION A discussion of the campaign elicits varying responses from Sheldon Vine (Bill Geisslinger, standing), Don D’Avanzo (Michael Elich), Connie Vine (Robynn Rodriguez, right) and Caryl Marquez (Vilma Silva, front) in David Edgar’s Mothers United.

Photo By Jennifer Reiley

What they’re about: Of his Continental Divide cycle, playwright David Edgar says: “If the plays have one over-arching theme, it’s the legacy of the various oppositional movements of the second half of the 20th century, from the civil-rights, antiwar and counter-cultural movement to the Goldwater campaign, the New Right and the Moral Majority.”

You’re the Republican candidate for governor of a major state, and the election is four days away. You’ve just been given an incriminating photograph of your Democratic opponent that shows her, during a campus anti-war demonstration 30 years earlier, running a Viet Cong banner up the flagpole at the ROTC center.

You know the picture has no bearing on her qualifications to be governor. You also know it would damage her irreparably among voters. What do you do? How far will you go to win?

That’s one of the central questions asked in Mothers Against, one of two intensely political plays by British playwright David Edgar—the other is Daughters of the Revolution—that make up Continental Divide, an epic cycle that had its world premiere March 1 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

It’s a bold, even audacious, move for the festival to open its season with two brand-new, untested plays, and even more so when those plays are as challenging and provocative as these are.

Daughters of the Revolution and Mothers United have been written to stand alone, and they do, but they’re also richly related to each other, and seeing them together offers a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Set at the same time, on the eve of the gubernatorial election in a major state (California in all regards but name), they show the race from both sides, Democratic and Republican, and the production makes good use of media elements, TV spots and news shows, especially. Daughters is an episodic journey tale and political mystery about a college teacher’s effort to uncover who, back in 1972, betrayed his radical student group to the FBI, while Mothers United is a family drama of sorts centered around the Republican candidate’s effort to resolve the ethical dilemma mentioned above, among others.

Four characters appear in both plays, and several more know characters in the other play. In one case twin brothers—one a former Black Panther, the other a conservative political strategist—straddle the political divide presented by the plays.

The election is set against the backdrop that includes a statewide ballot measure that would require people to swear a loyalty oath before being allowed to vote, as well as the recent killing of an environmental activist by a Hispanic security guard. Both issues weigh heavily on the campaigns—and the candidates. By showing both campaigns, Edgar illuminates how they have one-dimensional views of each other, while also having much in common.

Continental Divide is a fascinating cycle, and I recommend it heartily. Daughters is the more ambitious of the two, and with the recent SLA sentencings in Sacramento its focus on ‘60s radicalism couldn’t be more relevant. But it’s also confusingly episodic, and its protagonist’s motivation is never fully convincing. Mothers United is structurally less ambitious and so coheres more, but its ending—a mock TV debate—is disappointing. But these are quibbles that I hope keep no one from seeing these fascinating plays.

The other works opening the 68th OSF season are a modernist take on Romeo and Juliet—minimalist set, up-to-the-minute outfits—and Noël Coward’s classic light comedy, Present Laughter. I wasn’t able to stay for the latter, which I regretted. OSF does these drawing room comedies better than anybody, and this play is famous for its wit and humor. Besides, after Continental Divide I was ready for some fun.

Romeo and Juliet by and large made good use of its stark, very white set, and director Loretta Greco presented a fine reading for anyone interested in seeing this workhorse done well. Nancy Rodriguez gave us a lovely, childlike Juliet, but her Romeo, Kevin Kenerly, looked to be about 30, which was distracting (his dreadlocks didn’t help either).

Upcoming plays include Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Richard II and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the world premiere of Nilo Cruz’s Lorca in a Green Dress and John O’Keefe’s Wild Oats. For more information, go to www.osfashland.org.