When paranoids are realists

Theatre Exile's 'The North Plan'

4 minute read
DiStefano: Force of nature.
DiStefano: Force of nature.
With Gresham Riley

The North Plan is 90 minutes of snappy dialogue, mistaken identities (sort of), slapstick comedy we don't see too much these days (what with everybody trying so hard to be edgy, they aren't fun anymore), terrific acting and a message you saw coming but were laughing too hard to absorb until too late.

In short, this filthy-mouthed, hilarious, small-town Missouri hillbilly named Tanya is incarcerated (because of a misunderstanding), in a cell next to a gay, Jewish whistleblower named Carlton, who is on the run from the FBI, the CIA and/or the Department of Homeland Security for stealing a secret list of "enemies of the State" (mostly journalists and artists) whom the agencies plan to round up to protect law and order.

Carlton, himself a mid-level State Department bureaucrat, plans to divulge this list to the public before the big roundup begins. His only hope is Tanya (good luck with that!) and Shonda, the young black woman in charge of the desk in the police chief's office (not much hope there, either). Spoiler: His hopes turn out not to have been misplaced after all.

Reagan's loose cannon

Enter two scary guys from one of those agencies charged with protecting us from subversive forces, armed with Tasers, guns and a willingness to do anything, no matter how awful, as long as they can blame it on somebody higher up the chain of command.

It's surprising, but true, that The North Plan is almost non-stop funny until it isn't.

The script is based on a plan originally devised by the Reagan administration's infamous loose cannon Oliver North (hence the title), so it comes as no shock that we are invited to address some of the very same issues that concerned that earlier paranoid generation but are still very much with us:

Who are our "enemies"? Who gets to decide? If the government can detain, Taser, torture or kill a citizen without a lawyer or due process, can a hillbilly get a gun and kill the guy who killed the guy? Why not?

Dead people, or dead actors?

After the play we talked with a woman who professed horror that everyone was laughing so hard when three people were dead. Her husband pointed out that they were characters in a play, not real people.

At the very end Tanya stands on a desk, rifle aloft, one dead torturer and one dead lackey at her feet, along with Carlton, who has already been killed by these agents of the State, and shouts: "This is how it starts, motherfuckers!"

That's one of the great things about art: It doesn't have to be real to be Real.

Perhaps, in a way, the two most important characters are Shonda and Chief Swenson, because they're the only ones who undergo real change as a result of their experiences. Both are peace-loving, law-abiding public servants who believe the government has a right and responsibility to protect citizens. They regard Tanya and Carlton with suspicion— they're in jail, after all— and they are unwilling to do anything other than what they regard as their "duty."

Alternative to rants

When things get clearer— and clearly out of hand— Shonda and the Chief, perceiving they are on the "wrong side," act with courage and style to save as much of the situation as possible.

You could read essays from either the left or the right end of the political spectrum or listen to diatribes on MSNBC or Fox News about these same issues, or you could go see this seriously funny, serious show. You will end up having the same conversations afterward.

Kudos to absolutely everyone: Jason Wells, who wrote it; Joe Canuso, who directed; and Madi DiStefano (as Tanya), Aimé Donna Kelly (Shonda Cox), Dan Hodge (Carlton Berg), Mark Cairns (Chief Swenson), Robert DaPonte (Bob Lee) and Carl Granieri (Dale Pittman), all of whom are first-rate. Although The North Plan is an ensemble piece, it should be noted that DiStefano is a force of nature, whether on stage or not. Even when she's offstage in the ladies' restroom, you just know she's cooking up something explosive.♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

The North Plan. By Jason Wells; Joe Canuso directed. Theatre Exile production through March 3, 2013 at The Latvian Society, Seventh and Spring Garden Sts. (215) 218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org.

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