Regional Reviews: San Francisco
David Edgar's Continental Divide comes to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre
David Edgar's two play cycle examining both sides of a gubernatorial campaign, Continental Divide, continues at Berkeley Repertory Theatre following a successful run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There have been considerable revisions of both plays since the OSF, and each of the plays can stand on its own. From here, the two plays will cross the seas to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the U.K along with the same cast.
Mothers Against represents the Republican side of the race and is an inflexible family drama with a Chekhovian structure. The dialogues in the less than three hour drama remind me of episodes of "West Wing," giving us a view of the machinations a candidate must go through to win an election. Here we see the candidate and his team huddling in his family home, prepping for a big television debate with the Democratic candidate in two days' time. We see some of the basic arguments over lines of attack and values.
Daughters of the Revolution is more of a rambling affair with a dissertation on the radical movement of the '60s. The drama is more Brechtian in scope with a manageable structure. The actual campaign of the Democrat becomes secondary since this is the story of Michael Bern (Terry Layman), a 55 year old dean of a small community college. He has received his FBI file as a joke on the day of his birthday. However, after reading the file, he sees that it is no joke. The file contains details of an illegal meeting of eight persons when Bern was a member of a Symbionese Army-like group in the turbulent '60s that could be quite damaging to him and the Democratic candidate, who has strong ties to the radical group. There was an obvious snitch in the group who reported to the FBI.
Michael begins his journey to find the traitor in that group. This involves seeing all of the former members and going into the camp of McKeene to talk to the Democrat candidate and her campaign manager (Lorri Holt) who was one of the seven. He tracks down an ex-Black Panther community activist (Derrick Lee Wedden); a famous conservative columnist who was a firebrand liberal in the '60s (Tony DeBruno); and fugitive of 30 years Claudia (Robynn Rodriquez), now living in a forest of redwood trees with a "save the tree" radical group.
Continental Divide is intellectually thrilling, and you must be alert to catch the ins and outs of politics machinations going on in both dramas. The playwright points out the false dichotomies of both parties which come down to the point that you must compromise your own convictions to win an election. The scenes are fast and furious, especially in Daughters Against, with its condensed dialogue. The rapid fire scene changes make for some confusion of the characters. A point in question, in two scenes played by talented artist Craig W. Marker at the beginning of the second play, the playwright does not clearly define who this young man is, dressed like a '60s Haight-Asbury hippy.
However, both plays are rarely boring or even monotonous. Each play is complete, and you do not have to see both on the same day unless you want to be inundated with political rhetoric for almost six hours with a 2 hour break in between.
Continental Divide's ensemble acting is superb. Bill Geisslinger as the Republican candidate gives a charismatic performance that doesn't look like your average Republican candidate. In the second play, Geisslinger changes completely in personality to play a scarily convincing manic survivalist. Derrick Lee Weeden gives an imposing performance as the political analyst of the Republican party and a strong performance as his twin brother the ex-Black Panther in the Daughters Against. Robynn Rodriquez is exceptional as the casual wife of the Republican candidate and then switches personalities to the redoubtable fugitive living among the "save the trees" people. Christine Williams, as the Republican candidate's rebellious daughter, turns up in both plays and is perfect as the firebrand young radical. Terry Layman plays the 55 year old professor in Daughters with compassion. Melissa Smith is excellent as the briskly Rebecca McKeene while Lorri Holt plays the efficient campaign manger briskly. Tony DeBruno is exceptional as the belligerently opinionated ultra-conservative in the second drama while Susannah Schulman is vigorously eloquent as the commentator in Mothers Against.
Tony Taccone's direction is excellent as scenes change rapidly, and the design of William Bloodgood's broad beamed and looming redwood set from the OSF is very real.
Continental Divide runs through December 28th at the Berkeley Rep Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. Each play runs just under three hours and can be seen separately. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.