A thought-provoking premiere

'Confederates' proves timely, intelligent and plausible

Last Saturday, TheatreWorks launched its 47th season with the world premiere of Suzanne Bradbeer's "Confederates," a play packed with timely questions about journalistic ethics and the ever-present political minefield of our nation's racially charged history. Presented now, in the midst of a presidential-election season, the play seems especially relevant, with a story that could easily be ripped from tomorrow's headlines.

At the center of the story is Will, an ambitious young reporter tasked with following the nascent presidential campaign of a popular Virginia senator. As luck would have it, he is acquainted with the senator's college-age daughter, Maddie, with whom he shared a summer at arts camp when both were teens. When he encounters her again on the campaign trail, Will offers himself as a much-needed confidant and, in so doing, stumbles upon a secret that could derail the senator's campaign: An ex-boyfriend is threatening Maddie with a photo in which she appears wearing nothing but a confederate flag.

Desperate to justify herself to Will (who happens to be African-American), she explains that she had staged the photo as part of a college art project meant to challenge traditional interpretations of Civil War-era iconography. She is terrified that the image will go public, and Will offers advice on how to manage the potential firestorm.

But even while he acts as Maddie's confidant -- her confederate, if you will -- Will is tracing down secondary sources and preparing to break the story himself. And before he is fully convinced that the story actually is a story -- that its news value is worth the damage it would do to both Maddie and her father -- his reporting has taken on a momentum of its own, forcing Will to make the hardest decision of his career.

Directed by Lisa Rothe, TheatreWorks' production has all the qualities of a viable political aspirant: It is clean, handsome, and articulate.

Andrew Boyce's straightforward set consists of two glass-paneled walls that meet at a right angle (nearly unheard of in theatrical design), which rotate atop an inset turntable. With the addition of some unobtrusively chic furniture, a floor-length drape, and occasional bits of signage, the unit set perfectly represents a multitude of rooms in various hotels (conference room, guest room, hotel bar, ladies' room, "business center," etc.) and a press bus. The atmospherics are further aided by Pamila Z. Gray's subtle lighting shifts and Brendan Aanes's ambient sound. Even the set changes are accomplished with an air of professional bustle befitting a well-oiled campaign advance team.

The cast is composed of three equally talented and personable actors: Richard Prioleau as Will, Jessica Lynn Carroll as Maddie and Tasha Lawrence as Stephanie, a veteran reporter who becomes Will's less-than-willing mentor. Prioleau keeps Will's motives appropriately murky, giving us the sense that the budding journalist may not understand his own loyalties. Carroll's Maddie exudes a believable mixture of naivete, insecurity, and unexamined white privilege. Lawrence, meanwhile, gets all the show's best laughs, providing a nice contrast to Will and Maddie's earnestness. Her portrayal of Stephanie, a seasoned correspondent who has seen it all and liked very little of it, is at times reminiscent of Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown, yet the character is fully hers.

Bradbeer's imagined scandal is undeniably plausible -- the sort of revelation that would ignite the blogosphere and fill a news cycle or two with predictable waves of outrage and umbrage. And yet the drama inherent in Maddie's predicament never fully ignites the Lucie Stern stage. The play is intelligent, engaging, well-crafted and well-produced, and yet it lacks a certain visceral impact. The closest we come to a gut-punch moment is in an extraneous subplot, when road-bound and deadline-ridden Will fights on the phone with the mother of his 3-year-old child.

Maybe the problem is structural. The existence of the potentially campaign-crushing photo is the play's biggest shocker, and it's revealed quite early in the course of the story. Bradbeer gives us twists and complications as Will and Stephanie ask probing questions (Where did Maddie get the flag? What was her true purpose in staging the photo?) but none of these can top the original revelation. As a result, the bulk of the play feels merely procedural, with a final climax forced by a deadline from Will's editor.

Or maybe the problem is one of timing. The decision to premier Bradbeer's play in a presidential election year, its four-weekend run encompassing both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, probably seemed like a no-brainer. But 2016 is no ordinary election year, and audiences cannot help but view "Confederates" within the context of our current electoral fever dream. After witnessing a primary season in which all traditional rules of political decorum seemed to vaporize -- in which a certain billionaire became his party's presumptive nominee while actively inflaming racial and religious tensions -- the thought of a candidate's family member snapping an ill-considered selfie seems almost quaint.

Ultimately, though, "Confederates" is a show that asks questions, many of which are vitally important in our media-drenched, racially fractured political environment. TheatreWorks has given us an evening of intelligent and thought-provoking theater, and it's well worth the ticket price.

What: "Confederates," a play presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Aug. 7, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.

Cost: Tickets range from $19-$80.

Info: Go to Theatreworks or call 650-463-1960.

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1 person likes this
Posted by Theater appreciator
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 21, 2016 at 10:10 am

This review, while nominally positive, is unfair to this play in numerous respects. First, while not giving away every plot point, it tells enough so the effect of each unfolding revelation in the show is greatly vitiated. The experience of learning each detail is part of the dramatic power of the play, and this review tells far too much.

Second, while this reviewer says that most of the play is "procedural", with the existence of the picture being the true shocker, this misses the point of the whole show; it is indeed the response to the existence of the photo, and how this affects different relationships and people, not to mention the election itself, that gives the play its propulsive dramatic and ethical power. The existence of the photo is what sets the plot in motion - it is not remotely the end of that plot, and what follows is far more interesting than merely knowing that such a photo exists. The photo, by itself, is nothing. It is the human and political consequences of its potential dissemination that is interesting. If the existence of the photo was the "shocker" that the play depended on, it would not have been a play worth seeing.

Next, the many questions the reviewer casts off as minor, faux dramatic elements are actually at the core of the play's multilayered ethical complexity. The final dilemma, for this viewer, had tremendous power, and the excruciating pain that the character was experiencing, with its attendant dramatic tension, was palpable both on the stage and in the audience, which I think was literally holding its collective breath at that moment.

Finally, the experience of watching this in the midst of a real campaign only magnified its relevance, with reminders of the real world stakes of the decisions portrayed on the stage visible on TV every night; seeing it at some other time would diminish its effect. The idea that seeing this in a political season somehow undermined it is frankly ridiculous.

I am a very critical theater goer, and had low expectations for this production, which actually persisted through the beginning, which I felt was a bit stagey (albeit not so much in retrospect). But as it unfurled I was increasingly drawn in, and by the end, holding my breath with everyone else. I left feeling that I had just experienced a night at the theater that would change the way I experienced the world and talked to others about it, which is all, and more, that one can ask of the arts.

I should disclose that I have nothing to disclose; I have nothing to do with TheatreWorks or this show or anybody associated with it; just a random local audience member who felt very lucky to have stumbled into this jewel of a show and production. I hope others will not miss seeing it before the real-life campaign is over!

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