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Putting Politics in the Spotlight

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page C05

It's an election year, and two area playwrights figure political plays are just the ticket.

"Democracy: A Work in Progress," Don Thompson's historic, philosophical meditation on civic life, continues on weekends through Oct. 23 at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in Frederick.

Reiner Prochaska in "Democracy: A Work in Progress" at Maryland Ensemble Theatre. (Bettina Strauss -- Maryland Ensemble Theatre)

Rick Fiori is performing "I'm in Love With the President," the acting coach and playwright's comic solo piece about a gay man whose infatuation with the president leads to a political conversion. It runs Friday through Oct. 30 at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Georgetown.

Fiori plays both the gay Devon Maguire and an angry liberal who argues with him in a Giant parking lot -- a red state/blue state microcosm. President Bush "makes it okay for us to act this way . . . to war on the local level and the international level," Fiori says.

Devon "goes from unintentionally falling in love with the president to developing an enormous political blind faith in him," Fiori says. He has wanted to examine "this whole concept of how we have developed as a nation" since 9/11.

In "Democracy," not to be confused with Michael Frayn's London hit (opening next month on Broadway), Thompson looks at both the strength and fragility of participatory government. He seems to share Fiori's view that since 9/11 "there are trends" -- Thompson mentions the Iraq war and the Patriot Act -- "that we need to be watchful of." In the multimedia presentation, with its nonlinear narrative, scenes take place in ancient Athens and Rome and present-day America. Figures such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, a freed slave and a World War II veteran wander through and interact with the modern characters. Socrates quizzes Starbucks patrons on doing their civic duty.

Thompson, who also makes experimental films and posts his essays on his Web site, NextPix.com, says he tried not to get into current politics, though he concedes his play has a "progressive" slant.

"We humanize the past and we satirize the present," he explains, citing one character, Shrill O'Malley -- a spoof of Fox's Bill O'Reilly -- who learns from interviewing Thomas Jefferson that in late-18th-century terms O'Malley is a radical liberal.

The historical journey, Thompson says, "hopefully gets people to reflect on the current state of politics and prods them into thinking a little bit more about the process. . . . It isn't necessarily something that should be trivialized. It is important."

'Caveman' Antics

Actor Chris Sullivan is carrying the torch -- or perhaps we should say the club -- for "Rob Becker's Defending the Caveman." He opens in it Oct. 19 at the Rosslyn Spectrum.

Becker created the good-natured riff on differences between men and women, and since 1991 has performed it on Broadway, on tour and several times in Washington. But he's phasing out his role. Sullivan has traveled in the show for about a year, and recently two more actors have joined the "Caveman" franchise.

Sullivan, a 26-year-old Californian, majored in theater and studied Shakespeare for a semester at Oxford, but he's not a comic. "The acting side of it, there are some moments that come really easy . . . but the stand-up comedy side of it was new to me," he says. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound actor auditioned for Becker and then worked with him for three weeks to get the shambling, Everyhusband character right.

Now, Sullivan says, "I'm getting laughs in places he never thought would get laughs." That's not a jab at his benefactor, though: "He wants us to be better."

"Defending the Caveman" may not be Shakespeare, but the actor who says he longs to play Bottom deems it "the perfect job. I get to be the only person on stage for an hour and a half. Shakespeare doesn't pay well."

Scena Season

After its European tour this month, the Scena Theatre company will resume its season at the Warehouse Theatre with Wallace Shawn's "The Fever" (Nov. 21-Jan. 3). Chris Henley will star in the solo tour de force.

Irish writer Martin McDonagh's bitter comedy "The Lonesome West" will be presented Feb. 25-April 3 as part of the Irish Arts Festival. The play is part of McDonagh's celebrated Leenane Trilogy, which also includes "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "A Skull in Connemara."

"The Classics Made Easy" (April 30-June 3) is a rotating rep of three plays by Scena Artistic Director Robert McNamara that adapt ancient myth and theater. Part 1, "I, Cyclops," retells part of Homer's "Odyssey" from the viewpoint of the monster, as performed by Brian Hemmingsen. Part 2, "Thersites," careens through "The Iliad" from the angle of the "smallest and ugliest man in the Greek army," played by Hugh Nees. Part 3, "Gladiator," features an anonymous warrior awaiting his turn to live or die in the Colosseum.

Scena will close the season with "The Persians" (June 1-July 4), a modern adaptation of Aeschylus's antiwar play by Robert Auletta that takes place in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.

Follow Spots

• Arlington's Washington Shakespeare Company will mark its 15th season with Tuesday night readings of the entire Shakespeare canon in chronological order. Tonight at 7:30 is "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," directed by Steve Carpenter. Next week will be "Titus Andronicus," directed by Joe Banno. Tickets are $5 at the Clark Street Playhouse door. Call 703-418-4808, ext. 4 or e-mail scott@washingtonshakespeare.org.

• No mastiffs need apply: The Shakespeare Theatre needs to cast a small dog, preferably a Chihuahua, for a role in "Pericles." The pooch must be at least 7 years old, under 15 pounds and nonaggressive. Call 202-547-3230, Ext. 2207.

• Young Playwrights' Theater will hold its Youth or Dare gala Oct. 21 at the Carnegie Institution Auditorium to raise funds for the group, which involves Washington schoolchildren from 8 to 18 in playwriting. The benefit will include performances of their work. Visit www.boxofficetickets.com/ypt.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company