Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 2004

Haven’t you always wished you could get an inside, unburnished view of a political campaign — and see what really goes on? Well now you can, in a very dramatic way.

The La Jolla Playhouse opens its 2004 season with Continental Divide, which takes us behind the scenes — on both sides of the aisle — of a fictitious gubernatorial race in an unnamed Western state (Read: California). The two plays comprising the cycle, Mothers Against and Daughters of the Revolution, can be seen back to back, on different days, in any order. There are many insights and not a few ironies here.

First, this very American story is written by a Brit. Birmingham-born playwright David Edgar (best known for his spectacular adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby and his joyously cacophonous, multilingual Pentecost, seen last year at the Old Globe) was commissioned jointly by the Oregon Shakespeare Festive and Berkeley Repertory Theatre (2003). Also ironic are the titles: ‘Continental Divide’ refers to rivers flowing in opposite directions; here, it’s two diverging streams of thought, though they may not be as dissimilar as they seem. ‘Daughters of the Revolution’ invokes the ultra-conservative D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution), yet that’s the play about the Democrats. ‘Mothers Against’ calls to mind progressive organizations, but that play focuses on the Republican campaign.

The play cycle was well received in Ashland, Berkeley and London, but Edgar is still tweaking them for this production, which is helmed by Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Rep. Both men, who’ve collaborated on five projects, were steeped in the politics and idealism of the ’60s

“It’s a little embarrassing,” says the amusing, expansive Taccone, who directed the world premieres of Edgar’s cycle and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. “David knows more about American politics than most of us. He’s one of these men whose intellectual canvas is extraordinary. He and Tony are cut of the same cloth. When you do their work, you feel like your head’s being cracked open.”

“I’m absolutely delighted we’re playing in Southern California,” says the veddy English, earnest Edgar. “This is about West coast politics. Immigration, logging, law and order. The first productions were just before the recall election, and now there’s the national election. I’d imagine these pieces will continue to be relevant.”

Though both concern the same campaign, the plays are quite different. Mothers has a straightforward structure, with eight characters in close quarters, focused on the preparation of their candidate for a debate. Daughters is more dense and multi-themed, with more than 30 characters (a cast of 16) and multiple environments, ranging from forest to inner city to seaside mansion. Political back-stabbing, eco-terrorism, generational disconnection and shifting political loyalties figure prominently in both pieces.

With their complex structure and overlapping characters, both plays focus on the dissipation of the utopian ideals of the ’60s, on the Right and the Left. Although the political machinations (all based in fact) are at times appalling, the writer thinks his plays end on an optimistic note.

“Despite all the battering of the American Dream,” Edgar says, after his years of political research in the U.S., “and the failure to challenge the racial/economic divisions in this country, I’m sustained by the feeling that people continue to believe things can be better.”   

Things couldn’t be better for Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff, who’s thrilled with his season opener.

“It’s a huge, sprawling piece, and we’re happy to provide an opportunity for continued work on it. They’re major artists, and this is a major piece of theater for San Diego audiences. It’s filled with paradox and contradictions which, I think, perfectly reflects the contemporary American political scene. They’re epic, almost Shakespearean in scope. Fairly dark, but such humanity! Political without being ideological. David gets you to confront your own biases and inconsistencies.”

McAnuff is equally excited about the rest of his upcoming season.

Two Page to Stage productions:

Billy Crystal… A Life in Progress (April 20-May 2); a very personal journey.

Paris Commune , conceived by UCSD alums Steven Cosson and Michael Friedman (directed by Cosson), about a socialist uprising in Paris, 1871 (July 20-August 8).

Then comes the West coast premiere of Suitcase, or those that resemble flies from a distance (July 6-August 8), a hip, urban comedy by Melissa James Gibson, and

The Love of Three Orange s, a new adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s commedia dell’arte fairy tale (Sept. 14-Octorber 17)

The big world premieres are:

A musical, Directed by Des — Jersey Boys, the story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers The Four Seasons (Sept. 28-Nov. 14).

The Scottish Play by Lee Blessing, which inaugurates the new, state-of-the-art Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre; a witty sendup of the theater world and its endless superstitions about Macbeth (Nov. 16-Dec. 19).

But now, all eyes — and thoughts — are on Continental Divide.

“I have every expectation that our audiences will love it,” says McAnuff. “They relish thought-provoking work. And it’s serendipitous that these plays, about the loss of idealism and maintaining ideals, are here now in this post-Arnold election year. It just proves that truth is stranger than fiction.”

[The two plays comprising Continental Divide will be performed in repertory through June 6].

©2004 Patté Productions Inc.