It’s yet another indication that the 2016 presidential election cycle has become a never-ending carnival of crazy that StageQ’s production of "Commander" (playing in the Bartell Theater's Evjue space through Oct. 22) feels almost calm and controversy-free by comparison. In the short span of months since playwright Mario Correa wrote it late last year, the notion of the first openly gay presidential candidate has somehow become, well, quaint.
Being overshadowed by the lunacy of current events certainly doesn’t mean StageQ’s production doesn’t pack a lot of poignant power into its hour and a half run time. Director Kathleen Tissot picked a great cast of actors as her running mates, and they’re working with great material here. Correa’s script feels honest, insightful, and, best of all, avoids preachiness. That’s a ticket that’s easy to endorse.
Given that our candidate, Ned Worley (Matt Korda), is frequently referred to as “the accidental governor of Rhode Island”—he ascended from his Lite Gov role when his running mate was impeached—you’d expect him to be some kind of variation of the presidential doppelganger Kevin Kline played in Dave, the nice-guy outsider who saves the world and teaches us all a valuable lesson. Try again: Ned’s actually got a deep ambitious streak, some seriously unresolved emotional issues and a fiery temper. “Somebody’s going to be first,” he tells his long-time partner Richard (Dennis Yadon) in a futile attempt to get him on board with the idea of a presidential campaign. “Why not me?”
That’s the question Ned’s campaign handlers have to answer, and the play spends much of its time wrangling with how crusty Frank Sands (an acerbic Doug Reed) and earnest Zack Maines (Derek Sklenar) are going to focus-group him to the top of the polls at the Iowa caucus. Their efforts to spin Ned as a palatable option for voters are as comic as they are insightful about the state of politics and humanity circa 2016. Ned can’t describe himself as as “openly” gay, because that suggests he’s too in-your-face about his sexuality.
By the same token, Richard can be described as Ned’s partner (collaboration!) but not his lover (ewww!), and for god’s sake, let’s keep him away from the cameras. At least until the voters demand to hear from him, that is.
Both Reed and Sklenar do a great job of inhabiting their characters in interesting and different ways. Sklenar plays up Zack’s sense of energetic idealism, while Reed gives us a grizzled shark who’s willing to win at any cost.
Korda plays both sides of Ned’s complex coin with equal aplomb—he comes off as caring and sincere with voters and the media, but also loses his temper with both Frank and Richard. The dialogue snaps and pops throughout, and while the scenes between Ned and his handlers carry the most spark and dramatic weight, it’s the scenes between Ned and Richard that really reveal Ned’s character—and determine his fate. Richard’s a quintessential Dennis Yadon role, and plays to all the actor’s strengths—he gets to be witty, hilarious, caustic, and sensitive over the course of the play, and he nails every scene. In many ways, he’s as an interesting a character study as Ned.
Even with these character complexities, it’s impossible not to view the play through the lens of current events. For instance, it’s interesting that when a reporter (Amy Grams) at the Iowa caucuses baits Ned into suggesting that Abraham Lincoln might have been gay, his handlers react to the gaffe as a potentially disqualifying catastrophe. Clearly, neither Ned nor Correa had ever conceived of a candidate like Donald Trump.
Give Correa a ton of credit for refusing to wrap his play up in a tidy electoral bow. Not only do we not get to find out Ned’s political fate, but the changes he undergoes and the decisions he ultimately makes are more pragmatic than admirable. As Commander reminds us, politics is personal, but it also requires plenty of uneasy sacrifice—and that’s far more real that the reality circus we’re currently living.