READY FOR THE SUN TO SET : Bob Potter’s ‘The Last Days of Empire’ looks to history

February 27, 2008 10:22 AM
As in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” the desert seems an appropriate place for empires to fall. Those sands are metaphorical — they run through hourglasses, they run through our fingers, they wear down rocks and they corrode the best metal. Playwright Bob Potter returns us to the desert in new play, “The Last Days of Empire,” running through the weekend at Center Stage Theater, and to ask what America has done and where our country might be going.
Are we like the Romans, who overextended their empire, overspent militarily, let the gap widen between the rich and poor, and soon found barbarians at the gate? Are we like the Third Reich, with its secret camps and torturers and dreams of global domination? Or are we just Americans, after all, for good or ill, with an ability to change the experiment in democracy before it goes off track?
Mr. Potter’s optimism and humanism comes through in “Last Days,” more than it did in his last two plays, the dark and satiric “The Space Between the Stars” and “The Last Liberal.” Those two played like a requiem for a country hopeless and lost. “Last Days” manages a more reflective, philosophical tone. The three characters that stand in for their empires want no part in it, yet are all, in their way, working for the powers-that-be. And Mr. Potter collects them in a time warp to let them talk, on the verge of death.
Synesius of Cyrene (Tom Hinshaw) is long dead, anyway, gone to hang out with the shades in 4th century B.C. But he still hangs about his fallen villa in the Libyan desert, welcoming in a burnt and bleeding German tank commander, Karl (Matt Tavianini). The officer and his company were retreating to the ocean, giving up the war for good, when bombs destroyed the tank and his company.
Another explosion just over the horizon delivers Mindy (Tiffany Story), a worker for an American petrochemical company. She’s been blinded by an act of sabotage, a company-inflicted wound intended to start another invasion on the Middle East. (It’s only later in the play that we learn Mr. Potter’s “modern day” exists some 15 years in the future, when America is still battling for diminishing resources.)
For the better part of “Last Days,” these three meet, talk, play, and look for respite in the face of life. Mindy, blinded and made radioactive in the sabotage, shares Karl’s morphine and lets her rowdy Texan cowgirl loose. Karl envisions a visit from his wife, Petra (Devon Bell), a Berlin nightclub singer who bears bad news about herself, his city, and Hitler’s plans for the Jews. Is this what Karl was fighting for? He claims not to have known.
There’s not much in the way of plot in “Last Days.” Karl initially wants to leave, but as Synesius explains, there’s no way out . . . except one. Synesius plays cordial host, Karl suffers the pangs of regret and Mindy enjoys the morphine. Initial cattiness between Petra and Mindy evaporates, and a late visit from Synesius’ teacher and one-time lover Hypatia (Sylvia Short) pleases everybody — the wise and sarcastic older woman rules them all.
Mr. Potter asks questions but leaves us to answer them. The America-Reich connections might be there, but Mr. Potter has his eye not on Hitler, but on the complacency of a populace that allows a Final Solution or a Guantanamo Bay.
The weakness is the relative goodness of all his characters and the downside of Mr. Potter’s humanism. Karl seems to have no problem with the Jews — Mindy turns out to be one — and Mindy has long since finished with any crisis of faith in her country and, it turns out, is set on doing her best to make sure the truth will out. There are no general moments of disagreement in “Last Days,” just a shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders. Yes, they all say, it had to come to this, and death is welcomed. There are certainly better parties there. Life, where is thy sting?
All the actors work with roles that bring them from symbol to individual. Ms. Story, who does best with comedic roles, brings the better laughs of the night, yet still comes out as a real character. If America must be represented in one person, her straight talking, life-by-the-throat Mindy reminds us what makes this country great.
Director Maurice Lord, taking a break from his usual dark preoccupations with Genesis West, works with an amiable, friendly hand, helped by clever abstract lighting from Theodore Michael Dolas. Ellen McBride Sheppard’s costumes give us a delightful Roman ensemble for the always-game Mr. Hinshaw, desert tones for the German and American, and a nightclub dress made for a funeral.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo, upstairs
Cost: $15 to $18
Information: 963-0408,
©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

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