ON STAGE : The sorrows of the young empire – Bob Potter’s play checks our nation’s dreams of grandeur


In “Last Days of the Empire,” Sylvia Short, left, plays Hypatia, a great intellectual, teacher and wife of Synesius. With her is Devon Bell, who plays Petra, a nightclub singer from Berlin.
COURTESY PHOTO

By Ted Mills, News-Press Correspondent
February 22, 2008 11:16 AM

Bob Potter disappeared for some time inside the coffee shop we agreed to meet at to discuss his next play. The delay, he says, is because he ran into an actor from his very first play, “Where Is Sicily,” produced in 1969. That play used the Athenian invasion of Sicily to discuss what was happening in Vietnam. And now, nearly 40 years later, Potter’s new play, “Last Days of the Empire,” opens tonight at Center Stage Theater, and in three historical eras in the Libyan desert, another unpopular war is discussed.
The difference, Potter explains, is the notion of empire. “In the ’50s and ’60s, if America was called an empire, people would argue about it,” he says. “Now it’s a given that it describes our situation.” But does Potter believe it? Are we like the Romans? And are we falling?
“In a way it’s a facile comparison,” he says. “Things move more quickly these days. But I think we are. We didn’t start being one until the Spanish-American war ” our expansion has been somewhat imperial. I’m trying to explore the period at the end of empires. This is when things go out of control. It becomes a dangerous period and a very dramatic period. All the old assumptions become questioned.”
In “Last Days of the Empire,” three figures meet in the Libyan desert, near the ruins of a Roman temple and the rusted-out shell of a German WWII tank. One is the philosopher Synesius (Tom Hinshaw), whose life as a slave- and landowner has turned upside down with the fall of Rome. Another is a German tank commander, Karl (Boxtales’ Matt Tavianini) who is the sole survivor of a battle following a decision to desert his tank command. Now he feels guilty about what he’s done, and the comrades that have fallen. The two meet a Texas woman, Mindy (Tiffany Story), who is working for an oil consortium. She is lost in the desert, having been blinded by an explosion. Sylvia Short and Devon Bell round out the cast.
For those who know Potter for his two previous Bush-era plays, “The Last Liberal” and “The Space Between the Stars,” the new play avoids those plays’ broad satire.
“This is more ironic and complicated,” Potter says. “It’s more of a conundrum and a series of questions ” I think America has lost its innocence, but in doing so, I hope it’s learning some wisdom.”
Director Maurice Lord managed to find space in his Genesis West schedule to work with Dramatic Women Theater Company. He and Potter had been meaning to work together for some time.
“He’s a generous director,” says Potter, but notes that while acting as producer on the project, he’s tried to keep the writerly intervention at a minimum. “I’ve had many years to think about this play. It came out pretty finished.”
Potter is an optimist at heart, he says. “To paraphrase Gerald Ford, our long national nightmare is almost over. This has been a very dangerous period that has fractured our (country’s) essentials. But we can come out smarter and wiser. Better times are ahead.”

‘LAST DAYS OF THE EMPIRE’
When: 8 tonight and Saturday, and Thursday through March 1
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo, upstairs
Cost: $35 opening night, $15 to $18
Information: 963-0408, www.centerstagetheater.org

©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

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