The Shape of the Table

Burning Coal Theatre
Through April 24

Reportedly, it was the kind of theater Bertolt Brecht dreamed of: a show so stirring and engaging that its viewers behaved more like spectators at a boxing match than the sedate patrons of the opera of his time (and ours). Brecht wanted people leaning in, chewing on cigars (he actually called it “smoker’s theater”)sharp-eyed, critical and vocal participants, as deeply invested in the rite they were witnessing as a gambler who’s placed serious money on the outcome.

Which, when you get right down to it, is exactly what any ticket buyer for a theatrical performance is. Even if no stogies came out during Friday night’s performance of The Shape of the Table at Burning Coal Theatre, Brecht still would have likely felt at home.

The parallels between the 1988 fall of Soviet-bloc countries like the fictitious one depicted in Table to the current Arab revolutions in Northern Africa and the Middle East are clear enough. But on Friday, current events added one more, as the U.S. government teetered on the brink of shutdown at curtain, reportedly over provisions funding enforcement of environmental regulations and the work of Planned Parenthood.

Against that backdrop, a Raleigh audience looked on as a group of mostly smooth but decidedly sharky government functionaries scrambled to hold onfirst to political power, and then just to any stable surfaceafter their country’s populace had taken to the streets demanding their overthrow.

The decided edge to the show I saw wasn’t just coming from a talented cast under the discerning direction of Jerome Davis. As the leaders of the protest movement, and the events in David Edgar’s script, turned the screws on the failing regime, I noticed members of the audience leaning forward, clearly in anticipation of the long knives yet to come. Their abundant laughter when yet another clueless despot or flunky admitted his true motivationsonly under extreme duresswas more than tinged with a combination of schadenfreude, cynicism and vindication. At one point I actually started in my seat as a vehement “hmmph” from somewhere punctuated another telling shift in the fortunes of the ruling class. It was a tough houseparticularly if you weren’t playing their tune. After the previous political week (or season, for that matter), it seems the crowd had found it had a taste for bloodmetaphorically speaking, at least.

It’s apparent, upon reflection, why Edgar’s script has waited this long for an American premiere. It takes place in one conference room. People have meetings, or wait to do the same. And that’s allthat is, as long as you don’t count an inept government being forced to walk the plank, or the individual treacheries of rodent-based bureaucratic life forms turning on each other in a bid to save their own corrupt skins. In the wrong director’s hands, Edgar’s script could be about as entertaining as an endless, real-life office meeting.

Thankfully, Jerome Davis is not the wrong director. He’s sculpted striking characters here with an all-star cast. As the regime begins to fray, Peter Tedeschi’s a glad-handing first secretary whose pragmatics become more evident as the tide of history shifts. John Allore first presents a Mephistophelian face in an Armani business suit as he urges opposition leader Pavel Prus (a gratifying James Anderson) to sign a simple documentreally, just a mere formalitywhile Nick Berg Barnes sinks his teeth into the role of right-wing hardliner Josef Lutz.

Stephen LeTrent and John Honeycutt fill supporting roles as other opposition leaders, and Julie Oliver delivers a lacerating grace note as a long-suffering “coalition leader” finally given the delicious chance to avenge decades of the regime’s neglect. More poignantand cautionaryis Tom McCleister’s work here as Victor Spassov, a former government leader purged by Lutz many years before. His avuncular, amused character, summoned back to save the day in the crisis, turns icy with the frankest of warnings for the new leadership: Should they neglect history, retribution will overtake them as surely as it overtook their predecessors. Good acting. Good direction, too. Strongly recommended.