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Third Rail Considers Our Polarizing Politics

By Mart Hughley

JAMES GRAHAM’S PLAY ABOUT EARLY ‘70S RADICALS IN BRITAIN CONNECTS DIRECTLY TO OUR CURRENT POLITICAL TURMOIL

Isaac Lamb recalls worrying several months ago about The Angry Brigade––the 2014 James Graham play that Third Rail Repertory Theatre will stage March 24 through April 15 at Imago Theatre. Specifically, he wondered if the play, an examination of sociopolitical divisions in a time of upheaval, might no longer feel topical.

“I remember actually having the thought: ‘I hope we’re not doing this so far from the election that it stops being relevant,’” he says with a chuckle. “Thinking, of course, that we would be in the first days of a Hillary Clinton presidency.”

As it’s turned out, of course, Third Rail’s production arrives instead a few months into a very different administration, one whose policies and pronouncements have sent protesters into the streets and waves of alarm through the figurative left of American society. In the resulting harsh light, The Angry Brigade, which focuses on a real-life band of anti-establishment terrorists in early 1970s Britain, could look more like a commentary on our own desperate times and desperate measures. It might also, even if unintentionally, provide a model for how theater artists will respond to the new political realities ahead.

The Angry Brigade was a group of university-bred, anti-capitalist revolutionaries influenced by the Situationist political theorists behind some of the May 1968 civil unrest in France. In 1970 and ‘71, the group planted small bombs at embassies, banks, the homes of conservative politicians, and outside the Miss World pageant, resulting mostly in property damage but with one minor injury and a rising sense of alarm among authorities. Graham juxtaposes the messy, contrarian spirit of the Angry Brigade’s four young core members with the rigid conventionality of the police trying to track them down, but in a way that represents social and ideological fissures more broadly.

Although that particular history may feel a bit removed from America’s “blue state/red state” battling, to Lamb it’s an apt comparison.

“I’m 36, and when I think about what counts for political upheaval in my lifetime, it all feels pretty minor compared to right now,” he says. “I worried about a lot of things under George W. Bush, but I never worried about the structures of our country. So when I think of what era also had this kind of turmoil, I think of Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the youth activism that rose out of that era. Right now feels like that moment for my generation.”

Graham’s play had been on Third Rail’s radar for a while, first considered for the fall of its 2015–16 season. “At the time it was more coming out of a general sense of this binary in American politics and less a sense of current crisis,” says Rebecca Lingafelter, who shares directing duties with Lamb on the project. “When it was chosen for this season it was because of a similar impulse—the sense throughout the election cycle of a clear divisiveness between two distinct ideologies. But now it feels like we live in a different world. So Isaac and I have been thinking a lot about ‘What does the play mean now?’  It feels very different than it did six months ago.”

Among Portland’s top theater companies, Third Rail arguably is the one most likely to tackle overtly political subject matter, such as Richard Nelson’s Apple Family play cycle. But it wasn’t the politics that first attracted them to The Angry Brigade. Instead, Lamb says, they were intrigued by the aesthetic opportunities suggested by Graham’s author’s note, which describes the different styles of the play’s two parts (one about terrorists, one about the police trying to catch them) and gives producers various options about sequence and manner of presentation. “Perhaps just do what you like,” Graham concludes.

Lingafelter and Lamb now see the stylistic quirk of Graham’s script—in which the two sides start out looking like opposites in values, behavior, etc., but then seem to blur their spots along the spectrum—as the most politically relevant aspect.

“Thematically, part of our conversations have been about the way in which human beings aren’t really built to maintain an ideology,” Lingafelter says. “We have ways in which we’re hypocritical to ideologies all the time.” Adds Lamb: “It’s troubling on some level to me that there is ever a line that we draw that says, ‘I am immovable beyond this line, no matter what information or contradiction I receive.’ On either side of any argument. I feel like there’s something fundamentally human that dooms us there. But I also don’t know how to live in a world where that line is moveable, either.”

In a time when calls are loud for both “radical inclusivity” and outspoken resistance, such questions of consistency seem particularly important, yet complicated. The lines between principles and practicality, between our better angels and our paths to power, between compromise and capitulation, perhaps even between goodness and rightness, all get fuzzy. As Lingafelter puts it, it’s confusing now just to find the line of scrimmage.

“I think this play isn’t saying ‘This is the right way to behave in this situation,’” she adds. “It’s saying, ‘Look at how complex this all is! Everyone struggles to know how to behave!’”

Can—or will—theater help us know how to behave in this new era?

Theater has mounted a concentrated response in times of turmoil, such as the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s, but on the whole, American theater seldom is aggressively political.

Lingafelter cites a theory by the director Anne Bogart that mid-20th century blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee quashed what had been a varied and robust political theater scene, resulting in “50 years of living room dramas and looking down at our belly buttons.”

“We have a tradition of being more interested in the psychological and the familial,” Lingafelter continues. “That doesn’t mean it’s not political, but we tend less to make plays about the civic— thinking about our relationship to the public.

“I think part of why political theater has a bad reputation is that often it’s trying to talk to you in a didactic way about the experience you’re having right now, and there’s something too close about that. It becomes like a lecture, as opposed to a work of art that you can be in relationship to, that you can stand back from and ask, ‘How am I like that?’”

, “That’s why The Crucible [Arthur Miller, 1953] is a classic. It reframed that moment of our history in a way that allowed people to have some distance from which to look at it, rather than be subsumed by it.”

The two longtime Third Rail members say that conversations about diversity, season selection, and, as Lamb puts it, “plays that address some kind of fundamental question about societal norms” are “baked into the company’s DNA” but will now have a greater sense of urgency and purpose.

“I think it’s easy to get jaded,” Lingafelter says. “You start thinking, ‘What am I doing as a theater artist? I’m not really helping the world.’ But Third Rail does these talk backs after each show, and they have renewed my faith in the power of theater. People do have experiences watching these plays that change them. So I do have hope. We have so few communal spaces these days where we get to ask big questions—we’re all in front of our boxes. I still fundamentally believe in theater as a public space where we have the potential to change, based on conversations, ideas, a work of art.”

So what kind of art, what sort of political plays, do we need now? Angry plays (of which The Angry Brigade isn’t one, by the way) that vent our emotions, self-critical plays that hold our feet to the fire, allegorical plays that offer perspective?

“I think, ‘Yes!’” Lamb responds. “I think we need them all. We even need the bad ones, the ones that fail. Because what we can’t afford is passivity, what we must have is participation. Detachment would be the tragedy.”

Third Rail premieres The Angry Brigade March 24 through April 15 at Imago Theatre, 17 SE Eighth Avenue, Portland. For tickets, call 503-235-1101.