After the Revolution
As staunch San Francisco liberals, it goes without saying that we spend the bulk of our time haranguing the masses with Marxist ideology and agitating for the downfall of the capitalist overclass. You know, the usual.
So it is with great pleasure we note that Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre has finally produced a work fit for the fit to work, with the Bay Area premiere of Amy Herzog’s "After the Revolution," which opened Thursday. Comrade Herzog’s award-winning 2010 drama chronicles conflict between three generations of far-left activists: Emma (Jessica Bates) has been raised on the mythology of her paternal grandfather (the intriguingly named Joe Joseph, based on Herzog’s actual step-grandfather) and his supposedly unjust persecution during the Red Scare, building a charity and a public image on his name and legacy.
At the worst possible time she discovers that, in fact, he wasn’t wrongfully accused at all, and that Grandpa Joe really was spying for the Soviets. A crisis of confidence, conscience and culture snowballs into some pretty heavy questions about the legacies that parents leave for their children on one hand and the legacies that 20th century politics have burdened modern America with on the other.
If exploitation by the imperialists hasn’t left you too economically and spiritually destitute to partake in the potential collective bonding inherent in public performance, it’s a thoughtful and invigorating production. While there’s any number of shows about generational conflict and political fallout, "After the Revolution" teems with more ideas and emotions than the space will bear. It’s telling that there are several scenes in the first act that we just plain wished would keep going after they’d ended.
Herzog doesn’t shy away from thrusting her hands right into the heart of weighty matters. Exactly what identity, if any, does the American have left have anymore, for example? Is there really a difference between truth and honesty? Are family relations just politics at the heart of it? These are the kinds of questions you may ask yourself in the midst of the show -- or maybe the questions that the show is asking you. But "After the Revolution" is never burdensome or overly academic. Actually, if anything, the show might have a little bit too much going on, thematically speaking, but then again, social conflict doesn’t really lend itself well to being streamlined.
While singling out any particular cast members for praise would be a violation of our collectivist principles, Rolf Saxon as Emma’s father, Ben, and the mildly Alan Alda-like Victor Talmadge as Leo, Emma’s uncle, lend a nice yin and yang quality in their scenes with each other and with Bates. Saxon is pompous but still manages a kind of wounded dignity in his perpetually hangdog expression; Talmadge is accommodating and somewhat hapless but still suggests long-suffering integrity with his quiet reserve. Either could be a thankless part on paper, but the actors make it work.
And when was the last time we all really talked about politics anyway? We talk about elections, certainly, and we talk about the news and occasionally we even talk about history, but it’s been a while since any new work engaged with the world in a big picture, poli-sci sense, and it’s very refreshing to -- hey, don’t click away, we promise this isn’t like that dull class that fulfilled your gen ed requirements ten years ago.
Maybe that’s the secret of a show like "After the Revolution": It knows that politics aren’t dry and academic. Politics are heated and emotional and pathos-filled. But to call it a show about politics isn’t really doing it justice, anymore than it would be to say that "12 Angry Men" is about a homicide. Rather, these political ideas are a great vehicle for relatable emotions.
One pet peeve: The audience frequently finds themselves confronted by the backs of the actors. Very often, in critical scenes, the performer we want to see the most (usually Bates) has turned away from us. While this is always a sometime hazard with a thrust stage, it seems odd that the upstage area, with the greatest visibility, feels like the least oft used. The biggest victim of this is Adrian Anchonodo, who plays Emma’s boyfriend Miguel... or at least, we think he does? Since almost all of his scenes take place on a couch situated at the fore of the stage area, he’s turned away from a third of the audience almost the whole time. It’s possible some people didn’t even know he was in the show.
This sounds like a minor thing, but to give you some idea of how distracting the blocking becomes, some other audience members brewed up a term for it on the spot: "Backting."
Herzog, of course, also wrote "4,000 Miles," which played at A.C.T. earlier this year. She seems to have a good head for Bay Area audiences. "After the Revolution" is smart, compelling theater for proletarian fellow travelers and bourgeois class collaborators alike. Now if you’ll excuse us we have some pamphlets to print and then we’re going underground for a few years. It’ll be safer for you if you pretend you never read this.
The show is good for: Audiences who enjoy discussions about a play that can last longer than the play itself.
The show is not good for: Anyone who associates the name Marx exclusively with "Duck Soup."
"After the Revolution" runs through Oct 6 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, in Berkeley. For information or tickets, call 510-843-4042 or visit auroratheatre.org