In November 1989, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, and with it the Iron Curtain dividing democratic Western Europe from the totalitarian Eastern Europe. Then, in December 1991, the former Soviet Union went the way of the dodo. Both times, I was elated that the Breathe of Freedom was finally blowing through Eastern Europe.
But my Uncle Willie, a veteran Cold Warrior who flew B52 bombers for the Strategic Air Command before he retired, did not share my elation. Without central governments dominated by the Communist Party pulling all the strings, and Uncle Ivan acting as a scary Big Brother ready to mete out bare-knuckled punishments for ideological deviations, would there be a resurrection of centuries’ old ethnic animosities in Eastern European countries? Would heretofore underground criminal gangs openly operate with impunity? Would Capitalists once again exploit the working classes? But, most importantly, would the catastrophic Weapons of Mass Destruction in the enormous Soviet arsenal remain safely under lock-and-key, and not be clandestinely sold to tinpot dictators and itinerant terrorists?
There was much to chew over in Uncle Willie’s comments, and Burning Coal Theatre Company’s brilliant American premiere of The Shape of the Table by British playwright provocateur David Edgar eloquently explores many of those thorny topics, as it follows a Regime Change in a fictional Eastern European country, circa 1989, in which new-found freedoms to speak out and challenge the Official Party Line have opened a veritable Pandora’s Box of class envy, and ethnic hatreds are once again bubbling to the surface, as skinheads and political crackpots launch ugly attacks on minorities and immigrants.
The Shape of the Table, which takes its name from the months-long wrangle in 1967-68 over the shape of the table at which the parties would sit during the Paris Peace Talks to end the Vietnam War, is a lively debate between the Prime Minister of a fictional Eastern European country (New York actor Peter Tedeschi as Michael Kaplan) and various officials of the nation’s Communist government on the one side and a hodgepodge of fire-eating leaders of the opposition on the other.
Tedeschi as Kaplan and Durham actor John Allore as Minister of Communications Petr Vladislav are Voices of Reason, assailed from within their own government by two intransigent and uncompromising hardliners: Tony Award®-winning actor New York actor Nick Berg Barnes as irascible Nazi concentration-camp survivor and current Communist Party first secretary Josef Lutz and Raleigh actor David Sweeney as secretary of trade unions Jan Milev. This quartet of charismatic characterizations find perfect foils in a quartet of opposition firebrands that include Raleigh actors James Anderson as jailed dissident writer Pavel Prus, Stephen LeTrent as student leader Andre Zietek, and John Honeycutt as Catholic intellectual Jan Matkovic and Durham actor Tom McCleister as ousted former Communist Party first secretary Victor Spassov.
Julie Oliver adds a glamorous cameo as coalition party deputy Vera Rousova. Raleigh actresses Tamara Farias Kraus and PJ Maske make memorable impressions in bit parts as administrative assistant Monica Freie and opposition secretary Victoria Brodskaya, respectively. Completing the personable and passionate Burning Coal cast are Fred Corlett as the Minister of Defense, Antonio Delgadillo as a Bishop, Samantha Corey as a Youth Leader, and Luis Melodelgado as the Minister of Agriculture.
Burning Coal Theatre Company co-founder and artistic director Jerome Davis masterfully orchestrates the ebb and flow of emotions in playwright David Edgar’s intriguing arguments that comprise a series of freewheeling debates in The Shape of the Table, just as he deftly directed Pentecost for the small Raleigh, NC-based professional theater’s 1997-98 and 2006-07 seasons and The Prisoner’s Dilemma for Burning Coal’s 2008-09 season.
Burning Coal musical director Jonathan Fitts, set designer Robert John Andrusko, lighting designer Matthew Adelson, costume designer Kelly Farrow, properties manager Jan Doub Morgan, videographer Nick Karner, sound designer Sharath Patel also did their parts to make The Shape of the Table a must-see drama. Seldom has a political play been so timely. See it today.
SECOND OPINION: April 13th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-shape-of-the-table-at-burning-coal-theatre/Content?oid=2365474, April 9th interview with playwright David Edgar by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2011/04/07/the-shape-of-the-table-and-the-iron-curtain-trilogy-the-independent-interview-with-david-edgar, and April 6th preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/david-edgar-returns-to-burning-coal-with-the-american-premiere-of-an-early-play/Content?oid=2295771; April 9th Raleigh, NC Classical Voice of North Carolina review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=2694; April 9th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/04/08/1115485/burning-coal-co-scores-with-shape.html; and April 5th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with playwright David Edgar and director Jerome Davis by Alex Granados and Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/tsot/archive/The_Shape_of_The_Table.mp3/view. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the April 7th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/04/burning-coal-will-present-the-american-premiere-of-the-shape-of-the-table-by-david-edgar/.)
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents THE SHAPE OF THE TABLE, the American premiere of a play by David Edgar, at 7:30 p.m. April 16 and 21-23 and 2 p.m. April 17 and 24 in Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.
TICKETS: $10 Thursdays and $20 Friday-Sunday ($15 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except $5 Student Rush Tickets and $12 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919/834-4001 or https://www.etix.com/.
STUDY GUIDE: http://www.burningcoal.org/studyguides/sot-study-guide.docx.
The Play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shape_of_the_Table (Wikipedia) and http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/edgard/shapeoft.htm (The Complete Review).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
The Playwright: http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth01J12O313412620079 (British Council Contemporary Writers) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Edgar_(playwright) (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.