BWW Review: Sexy Political MUCKRAKERS at Barrington Stage


MUCKRAKERS is a new play by Zayd Dohrn which captures the oddities of contemporary relationships, sex and betrayal even as it explores radical politics, secrecy and privacy. It is thoroughly enjoyable both as pure theatre, and as a springboard for debates about freedom and secrecy. Discussion seems to spring from it naturally. It touches on libertarian anarchism, possibly the first play in this area to do so, and although Dohrn is the son of the former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, I am starting to think that he may be on his way to becoming a closet Republican. He is not very kind to either the anarchist and activist in this play.

That's because MUCKRAKERS uses as its starting point the Swedish sex scandals that have followed Julian Assange after he channeled tons of secret documents to WikiLeaks which he received from the US Army private, Bradley Manning. Assange has sought refuge at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London while a rather upset US Government threw Manning into solitary confinement, subjected him to intense interrogation and has now put him on trial. This play does not tell this story, but rather creates two of its own characters to explore the worlds of Asssange, and even more recently, Edward Snowden. It makes for unsettling and incredibly stimulating theatre which may not be to everyone's taste, but a great find for thinkers.

A little history: MUCKRAKERS was first workshopped at the Chautauqua Theater Company in 2012, and this is its official World Premiere.

MUCKRAKERS has two characters, Mira (Kate Rogal), a 25-year-old American, and Stephen (Kahan James), a 39-year-old European, who arrive, inebriated, at Mira's apartment where they argue about the concepts of privacy and secrecy on both the governmental and personal levels. He has just given a talk at her college on journalism and she is hosting the guest speaker on behalf of the school. She wants to know about him, but he just wants to make love.

Turns out that Mira, the Smith educated, sometimes lesbian proto-reporter has a blog that is devoted to agit-prop and is dedicated to unveiling hypocrisy in public figures. This seems to be a natural fit with Stephen who believes that "truth" is its own justification for revealing top secret documents.

Mira has an agenda, and she is not afraid to employ every trick in her arsenal in order to see it through, including sex, intimidation and pretending to be whatever her guest expects of her. With dark framed glasses that mask her face to some degree, she bobs and weaves her way to what she seeks, while Stephen is playing his own game of "bed the host."

Kahan James portrays Stephen as a pompous, paranoid Brit who is so full of himself he rebuffs all offers of food. His grandiose gestures and raffish personal flourishes are as exaggerated as his own high opinion of himself, though the moment he is alone, he is searching Mira's Brooklyn apartment for listening devices and hidden cameras to be sure he isn't being entrapped. He peers out the window to be sure nobody is stalking him. He is convinced that the government is out to get him since he is the reporter who found, nurtured and then used the secrets that his source, Andy Stanton, provided him.

We never see Stanton, but learn that things are not going well with him. In the true tradition of a thriller, there are twists and turns to Dohrn's play, and director Giovanna Sardelli keeps the two characters moving through the small studio apartment like tigers pacing their cages, taking time out for some lovemaking.

Only after the play is finished do your realize that Dohrn was doing two things at once on stage. As the traditional character exposition proceeded, turns out he was also setting up all the conditions needed for the final surprise which was right there in plain view from the beginning. This makes for a delicious set of surprises in the second half of the 80 minute play.

In suggesting that the playwright might be a closet Republican, I am not being arch, but just flummoxed at how repulsive he made the two seekers of truth, smashers of secrets, appear to be. Roger Ailes at Fox couldn't have done a better job of trashing the hypocrisy of Stephen's relationship with his source, Andy Stanton, nor the cold-blooded methods and motives behind Mira's search for transparency and truth.

Stephen's character represents America's debate over whether the government should be honest with its citizens about what it is doing in their name. The play uses character assassination to brand his motives as unreliable.

Mira on the other hand believes that transparency is not only for governments, but for every individual as well. Supposedly without a nanny state, we could all be perfect humans, without the need for big brother. Indeed, she represents a Facebook view of the world, where everything is out in the open. (That world is really scary, where cable boxes on top of tv's will have mini cameras in them so advertisers can judge us by what we watch, how we react, how we snack and heaven knows what else. Perhaps the bigger threat is corporate invasion of privacy and the resultant manipulation of our desires,)

MUCKRAKERS is an unsettling play, designed to encourage audience members to leave the theater thinking about those questions of privacy on both a personal and global level.

As someone who seeks more openness from our government, I am saddened that those who work towards this have been vilified in this play, while it did not offer much in the way of real discussion of the issues. Like the local news, it focused on the personal relations involved in outing secrets or defending truthfulness, not its philosophical underpinnings.

Barrington Stage Company uses its St. Germaine stage for pithy, controversial and experimental works like Muckrakers. Year after year, artistic director Julianne Boyd has been giving new plays and writers their first or second exposure and in that regard she has nurtured some real winners, from Mark St. Germain (Freud's Last Session) to Matthew Lopez (The Whipping Man).

The topics of these offerings have become increasingly contemporary, evolving from civil rights to immigration and finally the world of politics, sex and secrets in MUCKRAKERS. Its purpose is to entertain the thinkers, to offer tantalizing clues about life today in all its complexities, all the while providing solid, well produced theatre. Following Muckrakers, Boyd will up her game again as Southern Comfort, the first musical about a transgendered couple, takes this same stage.

The second stage works puzzle some first time ticket buyers because the plays aren't intended to send the audience home humming a melody or chuckling at a joke. (On the Town does a perfect job of that!) And that is ok. Sometimes you can be greeted and rewarded by a new point of view, a facet of life you never were aware of. That's the purpose of the second stage, to provide what you don't get elsewhere.

Zayd Dohrn is one of just a handful of playwrights who has successfully taken plays from the headlines to the stage. In the past he has written about US-China relations, tough love therapy, communes, the insurance industry, terrorist bombings and the red scare; plus old school romance and modern day seduction in the bars, bathrooms and bedrooms of a city. Here's hoping we will see more of his work at Barrington Stage in the future.

That's because MUCKRAKERS turns out to be a thriller with funny moments which makes it a comedy, and it has lots of drama too, yet it is ultimately a tragedy. Anyone with a thirst for current affairs, politics and personal psychology will find Muckrakers provokes thought and nourishes the mind. And that is what good theatre is all about.

Barrington Stage Company presents the World Premiere of Muckrakers by Zayd Dohrn, Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, Scenic Designer - Brian Prather; Costume Designer - Amy Clark; Lighting Designer - Scott Pinkney; Sound Designer - Daniel Kluger; Projections Designer - Robert Brown; Director of Production - Jeff Roudabush; Production Stage Manager - Paul Vella,; Press Representative - Charlie Siedenburg, Associate Producer - Shakina Nayfack. Cast: Mira - Kate Rogal; Stephen - Kahan James. 80 Minutes with no intermission. June 13 - July 6, 2013 at the St.Germain Stage, Linden Street, Pittsfield MA.

Photo: Kevin Sprague


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