Choose a Side — Carefully

The Berkeley Rep actually makes politics interesting in Continental Divide.

There’s a lovely moment in Mothers Against so small that it’s easy to miss, especially if you can’t see stage right. Debbie, the rebellious activist daughter of an old lumber family, has returned to the family home where her gubernatorial candidate father and his campaign staff are holding a strategy weekend. Debbie has refused dinner because it’s not vegan. As her conservative mother is picking a fight with another guest, she unobtrusively cuts up an apple and puts it in front of her daughter.

This little bit of stage business speaks volumes about the relationship between mother and daughter. Here are two people who are diametrically opposed in their politics, yet the bond of affection is still stronger than their differences, even when that bond creates seemingly insurmountable problems. This theme — as well as its converse — is central to the two-play cycle of which Mothers Against is one part. David Edgar’s new Continental Divide (Mothers Against and Daughters of the Revolution) is an intellectual tour de force that defies the easy binaries of American political discourse and lays open the legacy of the activist ’60s while bringing politics — something that might ordinarily bore an audience to tears — to rich personal life.

Not surprisingly, Continental Divide was written by an outsider. Edgar is British. This is one of those instances where an outsider has a better chance of seeing clearly the strengths and absurdities of a certain structure — in this case, our two-party democracy. Edgar interviewed sixty people — politicians and pollsters and consultants from either side of the aisle — as he wrote these two plays, and maintained a respectful neutrality in developing his characters. As a result, there’s something here to make everyone uncomfortable, to make everyone question their assumptions and even affiliations. He humanizes the enemy, whomever you may believe that to be, while making politics gripping.

The two plays are loosely connected by a squeaker of a gubernatorial campaign in an unnamed western state. Daughters of the Revolution focuses on the Democrats, Mothers Against the Republicans. In Daughters, a middle-aged sociology dean with an SDS past receives a copy of his FBI report, and goes on a quest to find the person who knows how a certain piece of information became known to the feds. It’s not idle curiosity that drives the exploration of Michael Bern (an excellent Terry Layman); he’s being considered for an important appointment, and the snitch could scuttle his ticket out of the community college where he’s employed as a dean. But the scope of the journey expands until he’s not just asking “whodunit,” but “who did we become?” And “where did we fail?”

Sheldon Vine also is asking these questions, but in the context of fighting to maintain his integrity in the face of an election that is still too close to call. In Mothers Against, Vine is getting worked over by his campaign staff, who promise they can get him elected — if he’ll just shut up already with his Libertarian notions. Vine doesn’t like any of the advice he’s getting — from replacing the word “vouchers” with “opportunity scholarships” to slamming his opponent Rebecca McKeene when he doesn’t care to — but how can he run the clean, honest campaign he’d prefer? Sequestered at a weekend retreat, Vine prepares himself for his upcoming debate as his family and staff lob grenades at each other over the dinner table. Family secrets emerge as Sheldon struggles with his conscience and his councilors.

More physically static and Chekhovian than the visually striking, wide-ranging Daughters, Mothers is different enough in structure and content to fascinate in its own way. The characters talk like our best, smartest selves, playing smarty-pants games at the dinner table that involve remembering how different states came out in the presidential elections going back several decades.

Certain issues are dealt with at length in both plays, including a controversial ballot initiative, the questionable circumstances of a young activist’s death, and the bipartisan universal desire to create a utopian society. While both plays cover the same themes, Mothers Against focuses more on political process and working within the machine, while Daughters spends more time out on the fringe and literally in the forest. Both plays feature sharp repartee and the occasional lyrical flash. One prods the sore spot of race and class, and, in the other, one generation downplays the activism of the next.

As well as a great deal of American history and political thought, these plays are loaded with memorable characters seen and unseen, many of whom bear a more than passing resemblance to real people (Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, Eldridge Cleaver, Julia Butterfly Hill). One particularly marvelous example is Don D’Avanzo (Michael Elich), Sheldon Vine’s caustic, take-no-prisoners campaign manager. D’Avanzo is lovingly referred to by his co-workers as the Prince of Darkness, and the sobriquet isn’t far off the mark, as he so amply proves in his by-any-means-necessary campaigning style. He’s the staffer who wants to “go negative,” much to the candidate’s distress. D’Avanzo’s mantra is “Never let the voters know what you really think.” Of course, he’s not the candidate, so he can say whatever’s in his head, and Edgar gives him the spiciest lines (“So let me get this straight,” he exclaims when Vine says something truthful in the mock debate, “You really want to screw the farmers, the frog-fuckers, and the Catholics at the same time?”). D’Avanzo may honestly believe all the neocon rhetoric he’s tossing out, but more than that, running a candidate is his idea of a good time.

Continental Divide resonates, perhaps unintentionally, with The Oresteia, the cycle of plays the Rep chose to inaugurate its Roda stage. Beyond the obvious similarities — both cycles place historical events within family contexts, both were directed by Tony Taccone, and both feature triumphant performances by Robynn Rodriguez and Derrick Lee Weeden — there are more subtle ones. For example, The Oresteia moved from the concrete to the more abstract and fantastic, as the murder of Agamemnon led inexorably to the appearance of the Furies and the goddess Pallas Athena. And if you view the plays of Continental Divide in the order Taccone prefers (Mothers first), this cycle moves from a fairly straightforward narrative (a group of people interacting in one location over a couple of days) to a more fanciful, mysterious form (Daughters takes more liberties with time and space, and there’s a scene that features what looks suspiciously like a classical Greek chorus composed of dreadlocked tree-sitters).

Mothers and Daughters each run a solid three hours and both are painstakingly, thickly plotted. Unlike The Oresteia, they can easily be seen in either order, leading to different realizations and understandings. Thanks to the magic of matinee performances, it’s even possible to see both plays in one day, although that may not be the best idea if you’re not well-rested going in. Even the brainy, historically aware friend I brought freely admitted he was “hanging on by [his] fingernails” through the dense, hectic Daughters. Both plays require complete concentration, like watching The Usual Suspects — you might miss something if you look away for a second. Policy wonks should love it, but even the people who spent their high-school civics class completely glazed over should find the plays engaging, especially the amazing mock debate in the second act of Mothers Against. Close attention rewards the playgoer who hits both shows with endless “aha” moments as the characters and their stories intertwine.

Powerful, complex, troubling, and sharply humorous, Continental Divide is right on target when it comes to the state of American politics. Some plays ask: Which side are you on? This one asks: Are you sure the sides are what you think?

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