Muckrakersby Zayd Dohrn. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Kate Rogal and Kahan James; photo: Kevin Sprague
"Visibility is the beginning of morality."
I have been examining the explanation of comedy lately. And I have been sifting through levels of what qualifies tragedy. Haven’t we all? The news, daily, rains down the impossible to believe, the hard to handle, the proximity of disaster and the extremities of the reasonable. We sit at home and watch it play out on television, sometimes taped, sometimes live. We try to grasp what it is we’re really seeing, unedited in the case of live telecasts - or is it - and we talk about it for at least one day until something else confronts us with its latest truths. It is all visible. We can see it. It’s a comedy of multitudinous errors and it starts with someone else’s ideas about what’s right, what’s right to do.
Zayd Dohrn’s new play "Muckrakers" throws this whole concept at us, directly into our faces, as two attractive and obviously intelligent people confront one another on every possible set of grounds: sexual, political, emotional, eternal, ephemeral, with the goose-bumps of anticipation and the shards of sexual miscalculation. At Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts two actors put themselves on the line and let loose on every level to bring their audience a bite of reality that surmounts both comedy and tragedy in one humble bundle. No one dies: comedy. No one lives: tragedy. In this play no one survives the double onslaught of charm and betrayal but no one finds himself or herself completely at a loss either. Dohrn presents a third option: I’m going to call it "traumady."
A muckraker is someone who searches for and exposes misconduct in public life, according to my dictionary. Does this sound familiar? Been hearing about the NSA scandals or the IRS scandals or the total government involvement in either of them? If so, you are the audience for a muckraker. Stephen, the man in the show, makes this his life’s work. Similarly Mira, the girl in the show, does what she can to expose hypocrisy even if it means shaming her politically professional father in public. After his speech and banquet with her organization she brings him home to spend the night. They are attractive and they have similar goals, likes and dislikes so naturally they get it on. That’s the last good moment they share, even when things don’t go quite as planned.
Kahan James (top) and Kate Rogan (bottom); photo: Kevin Sprague
Kate Rogal plays Mira and Kahan James plays Stephen. One of them lives with constant paranoia and the other lives with higher standards than necessary. Rogal plays Mira with a constant self-assurance the allows for very little self-awareness and when she is revealed to herself to be mistaken about her goals, she is shattered and nearly comatose. James takes Stephen to places that would make a lesser man self-destructive, but he maintains a bed-ridden catalepsy in his reactions to betrayals. Both actors play with such an intensity that imagining them doing this show eight times a weak is mind-boggling. They give so much, energy, emotion, stamina, that it seems impossible to believe that they are actually acting. The level of reality is that high. This play defines the "fly on the wall" ideal.
To say that these people are attractive would be idiotic. Stephen is the God Eros. Mira is the Goddess Artemis and when these two collide the explosions can be heard bouncing back and forth from the Taconics to the Berkshires with a distant echo from the Catskills. That neither character is unduly affected by each other’s passions is the result of director Giovanna Sardelli’s unusual proclivity for keeping these two as close together as possible for as much of the time as manageable while secretly being watchful and cagey. The stage space at the St. Germain, especially with Brian Prather’s perfectly Brooklyn set crowded with all of life’s non-treasures, is limiting and keeping two dynamic actors in two inglorious roles caught in the tiny passageway spaces provided allows the director to shake each one up in unusual ways from beginning to end of this 80 minute, one-act play.
Costume Designer Amy Clark provides the two performers the right look for an entrance, but gives Rogal a confusing costume change, with too many layers for a night at home in this intimate setting. Scott Pinkney’s interior lighting is almost too bright, but without that level of illumination we might truly miss the clues to this plays startling conclusion.
I could talk about this play for hours and write about it in depth, but you want to see for yourself what this is all about and not hear it second-hand from me. But I could talk about it and will, just not here and not yet. This show is truly ripped from the headlines and tossed in front of the headlights, exposing the lies, the truths, the rationale for both and the need for each. If this was 1932 and Barrington Stage Company was Warner Brothers Films, James Cagney and Bette Davis would be releasing "Muckrakers" this Friday in embattled black and white and we’d be eating our popcorn, watching the screen intently and muttering, "yea, that’s right. That’s it. I read about it yesterday," and we’d be satisfied that a good company was making us sit up and take notice.
That’s what Barrington Stage is doing right now. They’re making us sit up and take notice.
Muckrakers plays on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company’s Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through July 6. For information and tickets please call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line to www.barringtonstageco.org.