In 1984, under the Reagan administration, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and his cohorts devised a classified plan for the Continuity of Government in the event of a national security disaster. Under the codename REX 84, the top-secret stratagem authorized suspending the US Constitution, imposing martial law throughout the country, and detaining a long list of American citizens—presumed to be in the millions–whom the CIA, FBI, NSA, and Homeland Security covertly identified as threats.
This Orwellian reality of 1984 provided the inspiration for playwright Jason Wells’ hilarious but scary socio-political satire THE NORTH PLAN, in production by Theatre Exile from February 13 to March 3. The action is set in a small-town police station in the Ozarks, where the only hope to save our nation from the tyranny of a right-wing shadow government lies with an odd microcosm of American antiheroes.
I had the opportunity in January to attend the first read-through of Exile’s upcoming show and to hear director Joe Canuso’s observations on its characters and themes. For Canuso, the company’s founding Artistic Director, the play “addresses where we are now as a country, with people who, despite their differences, are all driven by their love of America, by their patriotism and passion. . . . It questions what it would take for you to cross that line, to take up arms–for that revolutionary spirit to take hold. The confluence of excitement and terror drives the play’s tension and also its humor.”
Canuso assembled a perfectly-cast first-rate ensemble of local actors (Madi Distefano, Dan Hodge, Carl Granieri, Mark Cairns, Aimé Donna Kelly, and Robert DaPonte), who displayed their considerable talents in fleshing out the darkly comic roles even in the initial reading. Following the meeting at Studio X, I spoke with Hodge, Granieri, and Distefano, to discuss their personal perspectives on their characters and the situation in which they find themselves.
STAGE: What role are you playing? Tell us a little about your character.
Dan Hodge: I play Clayton Berg, a mid-level member of the State Department. I really admire him in a weird way. He gets his hands on some information and decides he doesn’t want to be part of it, of this new regime, and tries to do some good. He’s taken the situation into his own hands, as much as he can—though we’re not sure what that situation is at first, and I like that about the play, it builds suspense.
Carl Granieri: I’m playing Dale Pittman, who works for the Department of Homeland Security. He’s been on the job for about four to five years and has risen through the ranks. This is not his first time in a high-pressure situation, but this particular event has completely changed the relationship between the government and the people. He sees himself as a good guy and a patriot; from his perspective he’s upholding the Constitution and the law, under these emergency circumstances—in his mind, it’s like what Lincoln did.
Madi Distefano: My character’s name is Tanya, and she’s a real tough-talking mid-western woman. She’s poor, she lives in a tough area, and she’s had a tough life. Now she’s in a custody battle with her estranged husband, who’s living with another woman. I think Tanya was probably the high-school bad-ass; she’s stuck in that high-school mentality of wanting to rebel against authority. In doing my research for the character, I found that her attitude is common in the Ozarks: take the law into your own hands, don’t trust the government, and don’t trust outsiders. It’s an area where a lot of escaped convicts have gone to hide out, to disappear, so there’s a lot of mistrust of strangers.
STAGE: What qualities, if any, can you relate to, or do you share with your character? Do you have any idea how you would you respond if you were in a similar situation?
Hodge: I admire the fact that Carlton stands up. I can relate to his desire to get out, though I don’t know if I would have the wherewithal to do it. But I think both Carlton and I are intellectual–almost to a fault, I’ve been told; it’s a good alignment of temperaments. Joe Canuso is an impossibly smart director, he lets actors take the lead and then shapes their performances, and it works because he does such brilliant casting.
Granieri: I think it’s possible for anybody in an emergency to respond instinctively, without a lot of thought; Pittman is very nervous about the situation. Good people do bad things sometimes, and he’s just on the wrong side of the argument. While I don’t share his ideology, I do see that he’s a human being beneath his bravado; he’s covering his nerves with machismo. He makes you think about what it would take for you to act in the way he does; I know I would do whatever it takes if I felt that members of my family were threatened and I needed to protect them.
Distefano: Tanya is tough on the outside and vulnerable on the inside, a real softy. She cares about her community, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at her exterior. She often talks without thinking; she has a knee-jerk response, and so has great moments of risk-taking and danger. I think I would do well in her situation; I’ve had times in my life when I’ve had to do some quick-thinking and make some dangerous moves. My father was an Army colonel, so I might have gotten that from him. When I needed to, I stood up–then I fell apart afterwards!
STAGE: Why should audiences be excited to see THE NORTH PLAN?
Hodge: It’s one of the most outrageously funny plays I’ve read in years, and it’s written with a spark of life, with characters talking over each other. But it also contains really surprising hairpins turns. It gets dark, and goes back again, then makes such a hard turn, so quickly. The play takes place ten days after a national emergency. Looking at how polarized America is now, especially in the midst of the current gun debate, this kind of scenario could happen tomorrow; there’s a sting of accuracy. People will have a good time watching it, and at the same time will have their brains picked.
Granieri: The play is incredibly timely. Over the past ten years, the use of surveillance drones has been authorized over the US, and the ongoing debate over gun control is especially heated now. THE NORTH PLAN raises some serious questions about our personal rights and privacy versus security, and about the penchant for violence in our country. In the play, we’re lulled into a false sense of security, then it suddenly shifts from dark comedy to dark tragedy. It’s viscerally exciting, and it’s also funny. Yet the story is very close to reality; we could all easily be lulled into believing that we’re safe when we’re not. Theatre Exile always does work that is meaningful; Joe selects plays that provoke thought as well as entertain.
Madi Distefano: It’s a great play. It’s so funny, and dramatic at the same time, almost like a Quentin Tarantino film— high-stakes, action-packed excitement, with strange twists and outrageous shocks. Really terrible things are happening, but it’s hilarious–until it’s not. The artistic team did a great job with the design, to create the right look and feel, and the show was well cast by Joe; he got the right the actors.
Judging by what I saw at the read-through, there is no doubt that Canuso got the right actors. And after hearing the cast’s unbridled excitement over this production, THE NORTH PLAN is sure to be a runaway hit that will deliver big on Theatre Exile’s mission of presenting “risky and challenging plays” with “a sense of true grit and passion.”
THE NORTH PLAN
By Jason Wells
Directed by Joe Canuso
February 13-March 3, 2013
The Latvian Society
531 N. 7th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19123
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