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Mad Cow Theatre made a strong case for the theater as the last refuge for rational political discourse with last Sunday’s politics-themed entry in their ongoing Salon Series, occasioned by their opening weekend of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. Host Alan Bruun’s introduction quoted Louis Brandeis: “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.” That sentiment was obviously shared by the several dozen engaged attendees who came despite the elements.

First up, following a Shavian speech delivered by Major Barbara cast member Ron Schneider, was an informative interview with the show’s director, Jim Martin, touching on the Fabian Society, Levittown and the origins of overtly subversive theater.

For the main feature, Bruun was joined by United Arts CEO Margot Knight and Thomas Chatmon Jr. of the Downtown Development Board and Community Redevelopment Agency. Knight was her usual eloquent self as she commented on the challenges of captaining UA’s “giant giving circle” (comprising 136 corporations, 3,000 citizens and seven or eight governments, depending on the political winds) in an “increasingly anti-intellectual society.”

I came away impressed by my first encounter with Chatmon. Despite being a recent arrival (17 months ago) from Georgia, he seems sincere in his desire to “roll up his sleeves” and find solutions to the economic crunch facing downtown arts groups, and made a well-received promise to increase assistance to Mad Cow. I found his candor refreshing (he admits CityArts Factory is too expensive for artists to use), and I’m gratified to see someone in his position coming out for a conversation with the arts community.

Also joining the political conversation is Playwrights’ Round Table, who chose “Red vs. Blue” as the theme of their annual Summer Shorts anthology (July 31-Aug. 2 at Valencia East’s Black Box Theater). These seven original sketches, selected from a record number of submissions, are advertised as “highly controversial” takes on the American political scene. Here’s my one-man instant straw poll on the candidates:

Behind the Curtain (written by Bart Jones, directed by Chuck Dent): Two slacker scientists (David Strauss, JB Adams) build the “Panderbot 3000” (Eric Kuritzky), a mechanical Manchurian candidate modeled after “the only president everyone can agree on,” the animatronic Honest Abe from Disney’s Hall of Presidents. This SNL-style skit squeezes good laughs out of mangled Malcolm X quotes and Benjamin Harrison pneumonia references, while taking even-handed swipes at both sides of the aisle.

Waving Flags (written by Eric Olson, directed by Aisha Soto): A
high-school student (Jenna Hellmuth) commits an anti-patriotic act of adolescent rebellion, threatening the facade of normality her fugitive father (Drew Storie) has spent her lifetime building. This one features passionate performances and enough plot twists for two movies of the week, but is held back by stiff blocking and an abrasively bleak ending.

Normal Is a Country (written by Steven Schutzman, directed by Kate Singleton): A scarred soldier (Dalles Wilie) and his doting mother (Lori L. Engler) cope with his struggle to regain his sense of self. The topic of traumatic brain injury is important, and there’s poetry in this wounded warrior’s use of the second person. But a mannered performance makes this more awkward than emotionally effective.

Politically Incorrect Dating (written by Hank Kimmel, directed by Kimberly Luffman): A socially aware scion of former slave owners (Alex Carroll) is set up by his shrill roommate (Ashli Jensen) on a dream date with some multicultural caveats. Luffman makes a creditable directorial debut with this shaggy dog story in search of a solid punch line.

A Dead Soldier in the Family (written by Ian Fraser, directed by Avis-Marie Barnes): Siblings (Nathaniel Beaver, Melissa Ready Hoepner) clash with their parents (Brett and Nicole Carson) after their brother (David Clenney) returns dead from the Iraq war. Fraser, a South African anti-government satirist, has a compelling autobiography and an ear for the elliptical, but his abrupt turn to slasher-film horror is more button-pushing than thought-provoking.

Swing Voter (written by Brian Polak, directed by Joshua Baggett): A protest against a Chick-fil-A clone prompts a couple (David Meneses, Kimberly Luffman) to clash over the consistent inconsistency of his moral convictions. Despite some distracting diction, chemistry between the leads lends charm.

Mr. Mittens Explains It All (written by David Strauss, directed by Paul Castaneda): A shadowy Secret Service agent (Eric Kuritzky) reveals to the newly inaugurated president (Marcie Schwalm) the real purring power behind the Oval Office. The conceit that “the only person qualified to run the world is the one who least wants to” was brilliant back when Douglas Adams coined it, and pet-centric puns are good for a chuckle or two.

I applaud PRT’s mission of encouraging budding playwrights, even if the results are an uneven mix of marvelous and meh. For those of you playing conflict-of-interest bingo at home, I’m also proud of the four veterans of the Rich Weirdoes (the Rocky Horror re-enactment troupe I produce) who contributed. I just wish artistic director Chuck Dent and the PRT reading committee had found at least one script with a conservative perspective. This left-leaning lineup perpetuates the stereotype that drama is the sole dominion of Democrats, and gives the proceedings a preaching-to-the-choir quality. As the socialist Shaw showed by creating Undershaw, Major Barbara’s convincing capitalist, the best political drama comes out of contradiction.

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