Comedy and tragedy masks

When it turns political, the American arts scene sometimes descends into such heavy-handed didacticism that it can make Ayn Rand seem as frolicsome as P.G. Wodehouse. So it is a delight to report that the Virginia Political Repertory’s production of “Special Session: Redistricting” avoids this trap, and instead delivers keen observations on homo politicus.

The script cleverly weaves two seemingly unrelated plot lines: congressional redistricting and judicial appointments. These might seem unlikely topics for compelling drama, but in the deft hands of the cast they become powerful vehicles for exploring the contradictions of contemporary governance and the foibles of the political class.

The play’s main action transpires over the course of a single day, during which the Virginia General Assembly convenes — ostensibly to take up a congressional redistricting plan ordered by the federal courts. The Republicans, who control the legislature, want to tinker with the current plan just enough for it to receive judicial approval. The Democrats, frustrated by gerrymandering that has kept them from holding more congressional seats, want to throw out the whole shebang and create a plan that will give them representation proportional to their numbers.

Such a shopworn story line could sink the heart of any veteran theater-goer, were it not for the shocking turn it takes near the end. And before we get to that we are treated to another drama: the fight to fill a seat on the Virginia Supreme Court. Jane Marum Roush has few lines to recite as The Woman Scorned once she is named to the post by Virginia’s Governor, played by Terry McAuliffe. The Republicans, led by the deliciously wicked Bill Howell in his role as Speaker of the House, refuse to confirm her appointment despite her obvious qualifications. It soon becomes clear they are miffed that the Governor did not adequately consult them first, as required by protocol — and they threaten to spike her nomination as revenge for the Governor calling them into session before their judicial appeals in the redistricting case had run their course.

In a clever bit of staging, the production takes place amid the Jeffersonian splendor of the state’s capital grounds; the contrast between the high ideals embodied in the grounds and their architecture on the one hand, and the petty bickering of the dramatis personae on the other, could not be more explicit if it were spelled out in supertitles. The costume design is also pitch-perfect: The actors and actresses are done up in bland, off-the-rack suits and sensible shoes that say “What an honor and a delight it is to be here to speak to the Chamber of Commerce today” on the outside, while screaming silently on the inside.

If the show has a failing, it is the not-entirely-successful attempt to straddle three genres at once: comedy, tragedy, and historical re-enactment. Some of the speeches drone on and on; you also get the sense that a few of the supporting cast members are just going through the motions and would rather be having a margarita or three at the Outer Banks. Despite being a one-act, the show feels long — at least until its convulsive finale.

It gives nothing away to say that the Democrats’ maneuver — adjourning the Senate, which thwarts the Republicans’ redistricting plans and leaves the Governor’s appointee in place until a future session in January — is a brilliant stroke, both within the universe of the play and as a dramatic device: Neither the GOP nor the audience sees it coming, and the protests from the Republicans are almost drowned out by the gasps from the mezzanine. Donald McEachin, the Democratic State Senator who conceives of the ploy, carries it out with Machiavellian glee. John Watkins is somewhat less convincing as the Elder Statesman, and his Polonius-like soliloquy, “We Have Not Held Ourselves Very High in This Hour,” falls flat.

McAuliffe shines as The Governor, delivering his pained insistence that Republicans do more than merely tweak the redistricting plan without any apparent self-awareness — though the audience remembers his earlier insistence that substantive changes to district lines should be made only in concert with the decennial census.

Still, the script does not really give this veteran of the boards room to stretch. Those who remember the Falstaffian brio with which he played the roles that made him famous — Friend of Clintons, Party Chairman, Electric Car Salesman — might come away disappointed by his muted performance here, in which not a single alligator gets wrestled.

The lack of any real heroes could make “Special Session: Redistricting” a trifle dreary. But then perhaps that is the point: For all the lofty rhetoric, the name of the game in this world is to get one over on the other guy. It is not a very fragrant world, as Raymond Chandler once wrote, but it can be amusing enough in the right hands.

Tickets are free, and the show will run forever.

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bhinkle@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6627

Twitter: @ABartonHinkle

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