Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
And what better timing for a world premiere production of a play with such premises than during the two national party conventions of one of the most controversial, bizarre, and ever-changing presidential seasons this nation has ever seen? TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents Suzanne Bradbeer's Confederates, a huge hit from the Company's New Works Festival of last August and potentially an even bigger hit this July, given the serendipitous timing, stellar direction, eye-popping creative elements, and a cast of three who all knock their performances right out of the park.
Suzanne Bradbeer begins her play in low speed with the slightly interesting, somewhat entertaining situation of junior, easygoing reporter Will (Richard Prioleau) trying to weasel his way into a poker game where higher-ups he needs to impress will be. Fast-talking, all-business and senior reporter Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence) makes no quick promises to help him and is clearly more interested in how she can turn a published article on Thomas Jefferson's vegetable garden into an "in" with Virginia Senator Trevor, the hot candidate they are both here to cover for their newspaper, who happens to be a garden-lover himself.
As a crucial primary debate approaches, Will happens onto Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll), who obviously has a lingering crush on him going back several years when they met at an arts summer camp. Maddie also happens to be daughter to the Senator. And it is on her phone that, mid conversation with Will, a photo suddenly appears that accelerates Ms. Bradbeer's play into high-speed, non-stop twists and turns with tension building by the minute.
From the moment the hyperlinked photo has the potential to bring a soaring presidential campaign to a full halt, to ruin a young girl's reputation and maybe life, and to make a cub reporter's career go from back page to front page in two-inch headlines, all aspects of this production kick into high gear. Andrew Boyce's L-shaped wall set swirls and twirls effortlessly between ever-changing scenes of conference rooms, hallways, hotel rooms, and reporters busall in the high style that befits any modern city and any top-rated presidential candidate's entourage. Curtains time and again cover up and then open to reveal wall-length windows that expose all and then hide everything, fully in keeping with the mounting decisions our three protagonists are facing on what to do about the photo.
Pamila Z. Gray turns the lighting into a starring role of this production as hues of red, white and blue flood in shifting, flowing manners on walls, in the corners, and in far-off rooms barely seen. Spots and beams of light appear to float and move above as the set revolves while shadows, areas of exposure, and areas of dark alternate in seemingly random but clearly planned modes. Ms. Gray's lighting and color design accentuates the uncertainty of the situation, the immediacy of events that are changing in ways yet to be discovered, and a backdrop of significance for a nation waiting to hear from a rising political star.
As director, Lisa Rothe uses the many changing scene transitions further to underline that much is happening in the background while we concentrate on these three main characters in the fore. As each scene changes, people are walking about both fully seen and in corners and background hallways. Yes, most are just moving set pieces; but they are also exchanging folders and papers, pausing to nod and supposedly speak, and looking/moving with increased purpose and intensity that is palpable, even when this is only supposed to be the play's pause between scenes. These transitions and building tension are greatly aided by an underlying soundtrack and supporting sound effects provided by Brendan Aanes that never dominate enough to stand out, but always support in ways to be felt.
As action resumes, there is a pace and a pressure that never lets up once the photo is first seen (always by just the three on stage, never by us). By clever Ms. Rothe's direction of the script's genius, an entire line-up of key characters play huge parts in the action and dialogue of the play but are never seen. Important conversations occur on cell phones, but we only hear one side. Another unseen photo becomes central to the plot and the emotions of the play. All of these elements are tightly interwoven by a top-notch script and tied in with intention by a director who grabs every opportunity the playwright avails to make this a gripping, relevant, non-predictable story that looks so familiar in our current political circus.
Into all this political hubbub and possible scandal, Ms. Bradbeer and her two journalists also raise multiple questions about the role and even fate of today's journalist. How can the print reporter compete and remain true to a rich heritage of journalistic ethics when confronted with today's instant news presented as either Fox News entertainment or Trump's latest tweet? What is the fine line between reporting news and actually making news of something that might otherwise go unreported? What sacrifices are worth a headline story: Trust of a friend? Time with a child? Ability to live with oneself?
Without three outstanding performances, all the efforts of the aforementioned would be for naught. As aggressive go-getter Stephanie, Tasha Lawrence is brash, bold, and even bombastic with both a serious side that is nothing short of snarly and a laugh that can suddenly explode in looks and sound. When told she has a way of staring at people that is disarming, she proudly admits, "I cultivate it," and we know she means it, having seen her dead-on stares that pierce to get answers to questions coming non-stop. But Ms. Lawrence's Stephanie has surprising sides to her, too, that soften that hard exterior; and her ability to show those in ways believable and crucial to the story's progression is uncanny.
Richard Prioleau offers a Will who is the crux of so many of the questions of ethics, loyalties and ambitions that the play so ably raises. He fools us at first to believe he is just a somewhat ambitious but also out-to-enjoy-life reporter who could be wowed by a young girl who still has a crush on him. But as events unfold, the wrinkles in his brow, the tension in his shoulders, and the urgency of his steps all multiply in masterful ways. He embodies a number of moral dilemmas, not the least of which is how to be a good father mostly absent from his young daughter. Throughout, he creates a man we come to care about, though we have no idea what he is going to decide until he does.
With a voice a little too high and a bit too girly for a young woman now out of college, Jessica Lynn Carroll establishes early on a Maddie that one might easily dismiss except that she is the daughter of a possible future president. But, as the spotlight suddenly beams in her direction after a certain beep on her cell phone, Ms. Carroll and her Maddie rev into a performance that is a rollercoaster of bribes, pleas, promises, and explanations that may be lies, may be truths, may be both. Should we sympathize, blame, or ridicule? Ms. Carroll gives us reasons to do all with a performance that is mature in years and skills far beyond the age of the character or even actor herself.
Bottom line, Artistic Director Robert Kelley is either brilliant or lucky (or both). His choice to open his and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's forty-seventh season with the world premiere of Confederates is nothing short of eerie, given the manner it parallels and reflects so much of what is occurring and might occur, even while the show is running.
Confederates will continue through August 7, 2016, as a world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at http://www.theatreworks.org or by walk-up one hour before performances.