Saturday October 13, 2012

Politics and literature figure prominently in two noteworthy nearby regional theater productions -- one in Hudson N.Y.; the other a visitor from Chester, Mass. that has crossed the state line and settled for a while in downtown Albany.

HUDSON, N.Y. -- Smack in the middle of political debate season, Stageworks/Hudson has its say with "The Rivalry," a play by Norman Corwin that focuses on the granddaddy of all political debates, the 1858 Illinois U.S. Senate race debates -- seven of them in all -- between Republican newcomer Abraham Lincoln, a promising Illinois state legislator and fervent abolitonist, and Democrat incumbent Stephen Douglas, a devoted expansionist and author of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 which repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise and left the issue of slavery to be decided by the newly annexed territories themselves -- an issue that proved the sharpest difference and disagreement between Lincoln and Douglas.

Long before sound bites, social media, television, radio, superficial analyses by pundits, and poll-driven campaigns, the Lincoln-Douglas debates took the measure of two men of deep conviction and principles who brought their argument directly to the people without filters, character assassination, half truths or glib shapeshifting calculated to satisfy whatever public mood was floating in the wind. Imagine! Honest men of honest conviction debating honestly contrasting principles of governance. What a concept!

"The Rivalry," which draws heavily on material from the debates -- Lincoln lost that election but drew enough national attention that he defeated Douglas for the presidency only two years later -- is told from the viewpoint of Douglas’ wife, Adele (a quietly engaging Susannah Jones), from a perspective of time after her husband’s death. And while Lincoln (played by Kurt Rhoads with modest reassurance and conviction) shares equal time with Douglas in the debates, in terms of the play’s dramatic architecture, he often seems straight man to the somewhat more complex Douglas, played with balance and understanding by Stephen Paul Johnson.

Laura Margolis’ direction is clean, crisp and lucid. She and her more-than-able cast catch the impulses that turn politics, in this case, into poignant human drama.

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ALBANY, N.Y. -- "Pride@Prejudice: A Romantic Deconstruction" opened Chester Theatre Company’s exceptional 2011 season in a beautifully acted production that fell victim to the clutter of Daniel Elihu Kramer’s script which, in turn, fell victim to its ambitions and pretensions, though not by much.

Originally commissioned and produced by Available Light Theatre in Columbus, Ohio before its East Coast premiere at Chester last summer, "Pride@Prejudice" has returned, this time at Capital Repertory Theatre in the Chester production that brings back the design team, director Ron Bashford and all the original cast but one -- Nick Dillenburg replaces Jay Stratton in the dual roles of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins. The result, with one exception, is enchanting.

Kramer’s notion was to use Austen’s popular novel as the framework for a discussion about changing values -- printed word and handwritten correspondence posed against tweets and Facebook and text messaging; cell phoning; Cliff Notes; shortcuts through and around the perceived thicket of Victorian language and literary plotting. Kramer also is interested in the impact all this texting and Facebooking has on personal relationships. That contemporary narrative felt far more prominent, intrusive at times, in Chester than it does here. When those contemporary interjections do appear now, they carry more value, meaning and wit -- a scene in which the actors unravel a massive Google chart that tracks all the characters in Austen’s novel and their relationship to one another is sheer brilliance.

With the exception of the, at times, Emma- Thompson-channeling Aubrey Saverino (a shimmering Elizabeth Bennet who, with her intelligence, grace and sly wit, could beguile the most confirmed of confirmed bachelors), all of the cast -- Gisela Chípe, Michele Tauber, Colin Ryan and Dillenburg -- play multiple roles; and with the exception of Dillenburg’s uncharismatic, too boyish, vaguely defined Darcy (his Mr. Collins is far more compelete), they do so with skill, insight and full command of the stage and Kramer and Austen’s material.

The evening runs just over 21Ž2 hours. With all the ideas, energy and style on the Capital Rep stage, "Pride@Prejudice" feels
half that length and twice as satisfying.