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Taking It Personally 

New drama takes the politics of a playwright to another level.

Wednesday, Oct 29 2008

Sleepwalkers Theatre co-founder Torre Ingersoll-Thorp is worried about my taking his new play to heart. "I'd like to first thank Chloe Veltman," the dramatist writes in his program notes. "And apologize if some of the play feels like I am attacking you."

I suppose I have every right to take personally March to November, Ingersoll-Thorp's thoughtful yet flailing drama set in San Francisco in the run-up to the current presidential election. For one thing, the author penned it in response to an article I wrote for this publication earlier this year (Election Stage Left, Jan. 9) urging companies to create engaging work that challenges the tenets of lazy lefty thinking. For another, the play features a character, Clarence, who happens to be the theater critic of a fictitious local publication, the SF Standard. For a third, the dialogue not only freely quotes from my article, but also includes such reviewer-baiting lines as "You hijack artists' futures every week with your column," and "Critics should be lined up and shot in Union Square."

Here's some news for you, Mr. Ingersoll-Thorp: I do take your work personally. Just not in the way you think.

The dramatist enthusiastically rises to the challenge of creating a political play that doesn't unquestioningly toe the well-worn Democratic Party line. The drama's protagonist, a young playwright named Mia (played with unsentimental sensitivity by Maggie McCally) might be a stalwart liberal, but Ingersoll-Thorp puts one of the play's most reactionary thoughts in her mouth when she suggests, "Perhaps this country needs a loving king," without a hint of irony. Her apathetic friend Marcus (a feisty, splenetic Ian Riley) gleefully ridicules the Obama campaign. He snorts, "I just can't get enough of his rock star vibe," while dancing around the stage intoning the Obama mantra "Change!" like it's a four-letter word. Meanwhile, the drama's most sympathetic character (a genial, soft-spoken Tim Biglow) isn't a Take-Back-The-White-House revolutionary, but a mild-mannered, tennis-playing, Republican preacher by the name of Robert.

Yet Ingersoll-Thorp turns received liberal wisdom on its head so frequently and with such glibness that the political issues at stake quickly become meaningless. Lines like "abortion is murder" are tossed around like the beach ball that keeps hitting Mia and Marcus as they sit in the park talking at the start of the play. As a result, March to November reads partially as a rote exercise in subversive thinking. This may in fact be precisely the point. It's hard to know if Ingersoll-Thorp is consciously making a meta-theatrical statement by sending up the idea of writing a play that undermines liberal ideas in such a supercilious way. Unfortunately, neither the playwright nor the actors push the conceit far enough to tell. I'd like to think that the ruse is deliberate, though. For to my mind, March to November's potential isn't in its examination of political issues, but rather in its journey from the political to the personal.

The personal story is really the only story in March to November, a work that appears to dramatize Ingersoll-Thorp's own navel-gazing feelings of artistic angst. The play follows Mia's trajectory as she attempts to write a rabble-rousing chef d'oeuvre. Inspired and irritated by Clarence's political theater column in the SF Standard, Mia sets out to write a new kind of activist drama. But she soon becomes stymied by inner demons. These include an increasingly uncomfortable relationship with Marcus, his unabashed antipathy toward Clarence (who, atypically for a critic, has become a mentor to Mia), and a fractious family life. Estranged from her mother, mourning her father's death, and frustrated with her preacher uncle Robert's right-wing ideas, Mia gradually works herself up into a state of blocked inertia, worsened by an oafish theater producer's demands to see a finished script.

March to November suffers from Ingersoll-Thorp's overbearing introspection. I'm not a fan of scribes who see the stage as a psychiatrist's couch. It's telling that Anton Chekhov gets a mention in the play: Mia is as wrapped up in herself as the Russian dramatist's thwarted playwright, Treplyov, is in The Seagull. However, while March to November could use some honing, including a better balance between the characters' inner lives and outer concerns, Ingersoll-Thorp's fearless attempt to grapple with complex ideas often transcends mere therapy.

The final scene provides the clearest evidence of this transcendence. It's Oct. 31 and Mia, having temporarily eschewed writing to concentrate on straightening out her personal life, is redecorating her apartment. Her solitude is interrupted by the arrival of Clarence and Marcus in Halloween regalia. The former appears first in an oversized, white wedding dress, his nemesis following suit in a tuxedo topped off with satanic horns. The contrasting "angel" and "devil" costumes point to the bifurcated way in which many of us look at the world. But when Mia's apartment suddenly floods, the angel, the devil, and the lapsed playwright all forget their differences and come together to clear up the mess. Ideology abruptly morphs into everyday practical concerns and Mia comes to understand that if she wants to bring about change in the world, whether through theater or any other means, she needs to change herself first.

"The right is mooing about faith, the left is mooing about change, and many are incensed about the fools on the other side — but at the end of the day, they are the same folks we meet at the water cooler," wrote David Mamet earlier this year in an essay for The Village Voice. It took the Oscar- and Tony-nominated author decades to come to this obvious conclusion. Kudos to Ingersoll-Thorp for arriving at the same revelation, albeit in an imperfect way, with his second script.

And what of the play's personal impact on yours truly? After getting over feeling like how Sarah Palin must have felt when she watched Tina Fey do a number on her on Saturday Night Live, I felt extremely flattered by Sleepwalkers' efforts. Critics receive responses to their work in the mail all the time. But it's not every day that someone lets you know what they think of your writing by staging a new play.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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