Any play that’s based on a Joan Didion quote is bound to be a little, well, obtuse. And larded with wordplay. And set on a remote tropical island that bears comparison to Havana, Cuba and Miami, Florida, though it’s not known enough — or populous enough — to have a name of its own. To help orient us, playwright Brian Thorstenson opens Embassy with a brief historical synopsis, delivered through the mouth of a housekeeper (who, like many other characters, turns out to be someone else entirely). She explains thus: The story takes place on an unnamed Caribbean Island (“UCI”) that the US has occupied — but not colonized — for means of “strategic positioning.” It’s the eve of Carnaval, and Ambassador Blundercart (Richard Frederick) is itching to expand his domain with a bigger, better embassy, despite protestations from UCI’s presidential advisor Robaire Dorchester-Scott (Daniel Redmond). Yet, Blundercart’s plans falter after he receives a letter from the US government, announcing his reassignment to New Kazakakurgistan.
That’s just one element of what becomes a dense, intricate, and admittedly hard-to-follow web of complications. There’s also a Venezuelan boat bound for the leeward side of the island, bearing a shipment of low-energy light bulbs — for some reason, Blundercart’s future depends in part on his ability to divert the boat of bulbs, though it’s never quite clear why. There’s also a bat guano harvesting operation that exports bat-shit fertilizer to cannabis farms in Northern California, a former ambassador who appears to have sequestered himself in the Embassy attic, and a bizarre, comic book-style secret agent guy who roams the island in a pair of aviator sunglasses, referring to himself as “The Third Man.” Even keeping those details straight required diligent note-taking.
That said, it’s probably not incumbent on viewers to keep track of the bat-shit bucks, or the boat of bulbs, or any of the other red herrings that clutter Thorstenson’s plot (there are plenty of them). The point, after all, ties back to a line Didion wrote, in the intro to her book of essays Political Fictions. Didion contended that “the [US] political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about the American experience.” That statement alone is a mouthful, but it’s one that really spoke to Thorstenson when he read the book two summers ago — as he indicated in the director’s note for Embassy. His rough translation: In the United States, policy-making is seldom grounded in reality; rather, most political decisions stem from myths and assumptions. In Embassy, he took that truism to the next level of absurdity.
What’s important, in this play, is that the acting transcends the complexity of plot. And indeed, the acting in this play is fabulous. The Central Works method of artistic development mandates that all players — namely, the playwright, director, and cast — be involved in script development from the very first draft. In this case, the collaboration really shows. Directed by veteran company member Gary Graves, Embassy features five actors who bring the farce to life. Frederick does an absolutely side-splitting rendition of the self-important, dandyish Ambassador Blundercart, understating the role just enough to make it palatable. Jan Zvaifler is pushy and domineering as Mrs. Blundercart, and Daniel Redmond is thoroughly likeable — if a bit clichéd — as the swishy, gay, somewhat ill-reputed presidential advisor. (He’s addressed, throughout the play, as “chi-chi man.”) Olivia Rosaldo is burdened with at least one whole paragraph of exposition in her role as Carmelita the embassy maid, but she handles it swimmingly.
Best of all, though, is Cole Alexander Smith, who has what’s unquestionably the most ridiculous role of all — and he plays it with gusto. Called “The Third Man,” he’s an emissary and ineffectual spy, whose main job is to deliver secret envelopes that always bear bad news. The Third Man takes himself seriously, darting into corners, talking into a wristwatch that apparently serves as a wireless communication device, ducking-and-covering inside the Central Works fireplace (a permanent fixture at the company’s stage in Berkeley City Club), sneaking out of doors, constantly glancing over his shoulder, and generating an air of mystery in the way he balances a pair of mirrored sunglasses off the bridge of his nose. Throughout the play he’s mocked, milked for laughs (“You’re The Third Man? Where are the second and the first?”), emasculated, derided, made to wear a ridiculous devil costume, and never quite taken seriously. And through it all, he never breaks character.
In the end, it’s probably not important whether or not audience members follow the plot of Embassy, since the play’s message depends on our lack of understanding: No amount of “strategic positioning” could possibly orient these characters. The play somehow ties up all of its narrative threads in the end, although it’s a near guarantee that no one leaving the theater will be able to explain what happened. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter. Embassy is just long enough to get its message across, before the jokes get old.