Local Theater Companies Chime in on Political Talk

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Byline: Scott Morgan Daily Herald Staff Writer

With the completion of the Republican National Convention this week and candidates in full campaign mode, many local theater companies have made it their duty to stage political works to coincide with the election season. As expected, many are critical of the Bush administration and of the war in Iraq.

"We intentionally selected this time to produce," said Bev Spanger, artistic director of Awaken! Performances. Spanger adapted and stars in "Half Life," a play based on a self-published novel by Tracy Baim looking at Gulf War syndrome and discrimination of gays and lesbians in the military. Although set during and after the first Persian Gulf War, Spanger feels many of the issues are relevant today.

"The military has kicked out biological and chemical weapons specialists and linguists fluent in Arabic during the current war - just because they're gay," Spanger said. "We definitely want to bring up many questions to people about this administration."

Spanger had difficulty finding a place that would allow "Half Life" to run up to and beyond the elections. It closes Sept. 18 at American Theater Company.

Arlington Heights native Vincent Bruckert also experienced the same problem with his just-formed-for-the-election company Agitpop.

"At least we got to run through the Republican Convention and through the debates," said Bruckert, who penned and directed "Political Masks 2004" running through Oct. 10 at The Hothouse. Bruckert is producing his drama "out of my own pocket" mainly as a way to address concerns about the loss of civil liberties in the United States.

Taking another route to political awareness is Jeremy Wechsler, artistic director of Theatre Wit. After seeing songwriters Steve Rashid and Tom Mula perform sketches lampooning President Bush at an event last July, Wechsler pushed up the start date of his in- development company just so he could stage their musical satire called "W" in the weeks leading up to the election.

"Humor is such a wonderful way to engage people, make them think and make them angry," Wechsler said. "A lot of people feel marginalized by the events of the past few years, and people want to find a voice and a sense of community to vent."

Political theater can often be created much faster than a film or TV show, but Wechsler points out that many theaters with set seasons have a hard time producing things on the fly. There are exceptions, like in 2003 when the Goodman Theatre allowed director Mary Zimmerman to stage Seneca's "The Trojan Women" in place of "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci" as an artistic protest to the war in Iraq.

Wechsler noted that if it wasn't for his existing artistic associate position with Bailiwick, he probably would have had a more difficult time finding a space to stage "W" in such a short time.

This wasn't a problem for Stage Left Theatre, which regularly develops politically charged plays in readings and workshops through its Down Stage Left program. …