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Bay area stages play politics

Brava Theater to bow 'Guantanamo,' Aurora solicits scripts

SAN FRANCISCO — The 2004 presidential election left theater folk in the famously left-leaning San Francisco Bay area reeling — and looking for ways to make meaningful artistic statements in the face of an administration they believe stands for everything most nonprofit theaters eschew.

“Theaters are going to deal with politics in a metaphorical context, or indirectly,” predicts Berkeley Repertory Theater artistic director Tony Taccone.

His organization is known for stellar productions of the works of contemporary playwrights with political bents.

“You can do ‘Henry V,’ a profoundly antiwar play,” he continues, “or you can think about restaging (Tony Kushner’s) ‘A Bright Room Called Day.’ I’ve talked to Tony about rewriting the part about Reagan and changing it to George Bush. I don’t know if he’ll do it.”

But, adds Taccone, “When you program a year and a half out, it’s difficult to say we’re going to do a play about Guantanamo and hope it’s still relevant when you do it.”

As it happens, San Francisco’s Brava Theater is presenting the West Coast premiere of Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s timely “Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” (opening March 26). Brava executive/artistic producer Ellen Gavin hastened to book the show after seeing it Off Broadway.

Motivated by the theater community’s glum view of the Iraq war, Berkeley Rep’s smaller next-door neighbor, the Aurora Theater, counteracted the post-election blues by launching a national new-play development program.

“I think most of the work that’s being created (for theater) is reflective, looking backward,” says a.d. Tom Ross.

Thus, original scripts are solicited (deadline: May 1) that explore “forward-looking visions of global import.” Six playwrights will be chosen to develop their plays toward full production.

“I want artists to reclaim the future,” Ross declares.

At Theater Bay Area, the nonprofit service/membership org for the nine-county region’s 370 theaters, exec director Brad Erickson perceives widespread distress and “a lot of discussion about the election and its possible long-term implications for the theater community.”

That distress is inspiring artistic staffs to seek material that has impact, whether blatantly political or not.

“During September and October, theaters that don’t usually do political programming suddenly were,” he points out. “Now, they’re saying, ‘What do we do next?’ ”

During the previous Persian Gulf war, artistic director Robert Kelley of the Peninsula’s TheaterWorks woke up one morning inspired to do “Sweeney Todd” and set it during World War II. “Maybe the way to start this time is by taking a more positive approach to our country and culture — reframe the argument,” he muses.

Post-election, Berkeley’s tiny Shotgun Players seized upon Albert Camus’ 1949 “Les Justes,” about terrorism (opening March 1). “The first word out of Bush’s and every politician’s mouth is ‘terrorism,’ ” says artistic director Patrick Dooley. “So, let’s put a human face on these people.”

“We’re all struggling to find a voice for now,” Kelley says.

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