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Acting Out

Now's the time for North Bay theater to get political

By David Templeton

The very first play ever performed in English in this country, was The Cub and the Bear, a pointed call for American colonists to break free from the paternal tyranny of the English crown. Since then, especially in times of war or societal strain, the American theater has produced a lineage of important works that fuse art and politics. The best of this theater manages to be both challenging, politically bold and thoroughly entertaining, like Inherit the Wind, Hair, Angels in America, The Vagina Monologues and everything written by the late great August Wilson.

The North Bay, blessed for decades with a rich and eclectic arts and theater community, has never shied away from controversial work. Last year's Actors Theatre production of Tony Kushner's Bright Room Called Day--the story of liberal artists in Germany gradually succumbing to oppression and intimidation in the early days of Nazi domination--was a stunning example of compelling political theater timed to coincide with current events. And yet what is surprising, and somewhat disheartening, is that in a region with such a deep history of political dissent and radical art, such politically charged productions have recently--during this time of alarming social and political change, no less--become so few and far between.

While it is vital that our theater community thrive--and while it is obvious that a company can sell more tickets to the pleasant escapism of The Odd Couple than to such challenging semidowners as The Crucible and Assassins--there is no time we need intelligent dramaturgy more than when outside pressures are the greatest. To numb ourselves with niceties while the country teeters on the brink of unprecedented civil and social rights dismantling is as dangerous as it is irresponsible.

That said, perhaps I spy a certain shift beginning to occur.

Within the next few months, a handful of North Bay companies will be presenting exciting, bold and decidedly controversial plays that are sure to ruffle feathers and open eyes. On Oct. 28, the Cinnabar Theater launches a three-week run of Tommy Shepherd and Dan Wolf's fearlessly revealing Beatbox: A Raparetta, the story of young urban dreamers fighting the forces of social inertia, performed by Oakland's Felonious.

In November, the Marin Theatre Company present the world premiere of Splittin' the Raft, a clever examination of racism in a surreal retelling of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, as if it were being retold by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In 2006, MTC will get political again with another world premiere about a balloon full of tourists stranded in modern-day Cuba. These productions are perfectly timed. Given the state of the nation, the time is ripe for such unswervingly political theater.

Then there's Pegasus Theater's production of Bent.

According to North Bay director Russell Kaltschmidt, there is no riper time than the present for a revival of Martin Sherman's powerful, unflinching 1978 drama. As Kaltschmidt tells it, he has wanted to direct Sherman's remarkable and inspirational true-story about German homosexuals imprisoned in Dachau ever since he discovered it in graduate school over 10 years ago. Even then, nearly 20 years after it was first performed, Bent was clearly a controversial play.

"What was deemed too controversial then," he writes on the Pegasus Theater's website, "has become, I believe, highly relevant today. Considering President Bush's attempt to codify hate with a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage and the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, the world of Bent does not seem so long ago." Identifying himself as "a gay man of German descent," Kaltschmidt sees the adults-only play--which in his new production is unavoidably violent and sexually explicit--as an extremely important piece of theater. Bent, he says, "takes a valuable look at a shocking piece of human history, representing a strong plea for tolerance and humanity."

I applaud Pegasus for taking this show on. I hope they sell out every performance. I encourage you all to go see it.

And, now, as young Oliver so memorably said, please, may I have some more?


'Bent' runs Friday–Saturday, Oct. 22–Nov. 18 with several special performances. Friday–Saturday at 8pm. Saturday, Oct. 22 at 8pm, special gala opening with refreshments, $35. Matinees Sunday, Oct. 30 and Nov. 13 at 2pm; pay what you can Thursday, Nov. 3 and Nov. 17 at 8pm. Pegasus Hall, 20347 Hwy. 116, Monte Rio. $15-$18. 707.522.9043.

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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