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Playing Politics 

Two different looks at the body politic: a subversive Davy Crockett at PRC and a search for the cause of atrocity at REP

PlayMakers Repertory Company opened its 2002-3 season with Edwin Justus Mayer's Sunrise in My Pocket: The Comical, Tragical, True History of Davy Crockett, a marathon epic of dramaturgy that was originally penned in 1938, performed in a single community theater workshop, and promptly forgotten. According to Artistic Director David Hammond, that long period of neglect was no accident: During the Cold War, "no commercial theater producer wanted to take on a work that could be seen as questioning any aspect of America or its values."

Hold on a minute. Davy Crockett--buckskin-clad frontiersman--a subversive? John Wayne himself played the notoriously garrulous bear-hunter and politician on the big screen. And the coonskin cap craze instigated by Fess Parker's late 1950s Disney television series may have been the first baby boomer consumer fad, though it clearly wasn't the last.

The man called his rifle Betsy, for goodness sake. Does it get more American than that?

Hammond invites us to revisit the not only legendary but potentially seditious Crockett by mounting Jeffrey Hayden's 1995 adaptation of Mayer's opus, a relatively modest two-act play. Hayden's pared-down version depicts the period immediately following Crockett's ignominious electoral defeat after three terms in Congress and his subsequent pilgrimage to the ruins of the Church of San Antonio de Bexar, also known as the Alamo. Fed up with "politics as usual," Crockett reportedly told the Tennessee constituents that turned him out (a pack of bankers and speculators that confiscated land from poor famers), "You go to hell; I'm going to Texas." Guess he showed them.

The ironies begin to multiply as Sunrise follows a rejected Tennessee politician to the promised land of Texas. Crockett fought with Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, but then rejected the hypocrisy of President Jackson's executive branch aggrandizement and common man rhetoric. Just when you thought the election of 2000 was about to be over.

With such strange synchronicities hovering about, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that this show is pure, unadulterated commedia dell'Americana. Crockett, played brilliantly here with just the right amount of swaggering eloquence by Kenneth P. Strong, is unapologetically larger-than-life as the pioneer who inspires the loyalty of the stock figures who round out his posse: a pirate, a swindler, a drunkard and a harlot.

The ongoing conflict between Thimblerig (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and Hardin (Mike Regan) builds nicely, and comic moments late in the second act grow out of their characterizations instead of their situation. Jamie Rose brings the proper bounce to her step as Annie, a frontierswoman who proves herself worthy of the privileges she has claimed as a free woman. As Crawling Caterpillar, an Indian with an attitude, Douglas Spain was unable to sustain the same intensity level as the rest of the unusually strong cast. In fact, Spain seemed in the unenviable position of being the one actor for whom it was impossible to abandon character development in favor of creating a recognizable type--a problem that may originate with the script for a character which oscillates between Tonto and Geronimo.

PRC's spunky, contemporary American folk drama is often quite charming. But in order for the legendary Davy Crockett to "speak with ever-fresh voices to posterity," as Hammond wants, the production ought to consider distancing the audience from the character's homespun platitudes and gung-ho motivational speeches. Kenneth P. Strong is such an engaging Davy Crockett that it may be difficult to question the decision he and his motley crew make at the Alamo.

Still, it's worthwhile to remember a number of things about that site of imperialism and martyrdom, and its relevance today. The belief in territorial exceptionalism has a much more sinister tinge to it these days. If Hammond and his cast wish to point that out, they must offer their audience some point of entry.

It's certainly one way to make a dramatic entrance. In Raleigh Ensemble Players' current production of Show and Tell the audience has to step through debris, white fog and exposed steel girders to enter a community still reeling from the effects of sudden death. The steel girders parallel those of the World Trade Center, as they expose the structure of the school building where a classroom with 24 young children has inexplicably been blown to bits. In short order, the school's skeletal architecture comes to symbolize the American identity itself.

In the prologue, schoolteacher Corey (Sarah Kocz), circulates photographs of her recent visit to the "capital city." Government investigators reveal that the school's East Wing temporarily houses the local authorities and the press, while the West Wing shelters the parents of the victims. Such language clearly suggests that the traumatized building could be associated with the White House. Locating this violent tragedy near the "capital city" further resonates with the current series of sniper killings in the suburban D.C. area.

Show and Tell careens back and forth between the trauma professionals and the family members of the young victims. The strong cast, several playing dual roles, makes nearly effortless transitions from the businesslike and somewhat flippant SBI investigators who nonchalantly discuss bone fragments embedded in walls, to the waiting parents, who minister to their wounds with ice packs, beer, anger and religion.

As the sole survivor to the incident, Corey links the two groups and serves as the focal point for the audience. The only reason she escaped the blast was because she stepped out of the classroom to retrieve her autoharp. In the aftermath, she wonders why she survived.

Nanci Burrows shows amazing range as Sharon, the cynical SBI investigator and Erinn, a devoutly Christian mother who questions her faith after the loss of her son. As Mr. Farsted, Brian Robinson delivers a subtle performance that allows his character's suspicions about the possible cause of the explosion and his coiled fury to slowly unfold. Kocz's lovely soprano voice lends a mournful tone to an uneasy mixture of parental grief and professional distance.

Despite admirable efforts from the cast, the script's weaknesses become evident before the end of the over-long first act. Written before the earlier World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the carnage of last September, Show and Tell belongs to a different era and refuses to transcend it.

The play suggests that violence begets more of the same and often has unintended consequences. It also implies that people are comforted when they learn the reasons for violence, and are then able to move forward. But the complex emotional and political character of contemporary violence is missing. Recent history would suggest that, for many people, learning about or learning from such tragedies is tantamount to endorsing the "evil" forces responsible for them.

Show and Tell commendably explores the causality of violence. Yet it shifts its focus from the politics of a national community's endorsement of violence to the well-intentioned but unsatisfying notion that individuals can learn from such experiences.

Although Show and Tell depicts a community in grief, it does not provide a community process for healing from that grief or a sense of a shared politics that would prevent future violence. EndBlock

More by Maria Pramaggiore


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