Patricia Milton Parodies Empire and Rebels
by Barry David Horwitz
A touch of soap opera, a lot of political satire, and a dash of silly romantic comedy—toss them all into the hurly-burly of serious environmental and neo-colonial issues. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or to cry at this recipe for the state of the world. How to present the horrors around us, that is US, without reproducing those horrors? Patricia Milton’s world premiere melds sharp political insights with comic personal exposure. She deals with rainforest destruction, women as negotiators, and western imperialism. She’s working on the edge of comedy and outrage, here. It’s a thin line to walk, and sometimes it works and sometimes it hurts.
Milton’s new play at Central Works sure has its heart in the right place. She’s got the facts, too, that lie behind the fictional “Empire Holdings” corporation which is destroying the rainforest in Southeast Asia to plant and process palm oil trees for our Oreos. At the Berkeley City Club, the intimate, elegant Julia Morgan parlor with its stone fireplace serves as Empire’s boardroom. Milton puts us at the heart of the corporate compound on the fictitious island of Marititu, where its neo-colonial conspiracies are executed. Empire has taken over vast tracts of land for palm oil plantations, and alienated the native people, who are finally rising up against the misappropriation of their island and its resources.
You can see Rainforest Action Network for more info, as the program directs. The play performs that service for those who may have missed the rainforest destruction news. The lungs of our planet are being destroyed, as you know–the crime at the heart of “Hearts of Palm.”
The main negotiator, ironically from Human Services, Vi (the able and appealing Frieda de Lackner), asserts her good intentions from the start. She asserts her negotation skills, as she confronts Brittany (the feisty and furious Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), who is more devoted to Empire’s bottom line.
Vi has been flown down to Maritutu to negotiate a settlement with the native people, already rebelling. The brutal Empire corporation is a parody of every exploitative, imperialist conglomerate that burns down rainforests and degrades the inhabitants. You can find them all over Latin America and Southeast Asia, for starters. Consult Friends of the Earth and Survival International, as the playwright advises.
Well, Vi soon proves her credentials as a tough but humanitarian and idealistic negotiator, while Brittany, a more hardened corporate tool, is carried off to the jungle for ransom by the rebels—or so it would seem. Vi, nobly trying to humanize “Empire” and negotiate with the “rebels,” has to deal with an assortment of crazies. First among them, a militaristic whacko ex-Marine Empire security officer, “Helen,” (a swaggering, comic Jan Zvaifler), who wears sun-glasses, totes guns, and blows up jeeps. Helen says, “There’s no such thing as an EX-Marine.”
Zvaifler’s tough-gal is busy blowing up jeeps and torturing spies, while Vi attempts to deal fairly with the native ruler of the Island, Ni-Bethu (an elegant, powerful Michelle Talgarow). Ni-Bethu is rational and clever ruler, who is trying to stave off the Empire. They are all comic caricatures of real-life antagonists, played in high Saturday Night Live comic style. Milton’s neo-colonialism played for comedy proves to be as elusive as the complex negotiations between the native ruler, the angry rebel, and the corporate shills.
The height of the comedy comes from the bumbling male corporate lackey “Strap Masters,” (an egotistical, self-mocking John Patrick Moore). Strap, in white man shorts, is the last word in dunce and fool. Strap serves Empire,” slavishly; and romantically pursues poor Vi, even more slavishly. Here, the personal becomes ridiculously political, as Vi asserts, “No, no, and no.” But clumsy Strap is deaf to a woman’s words. He is the Ugly American. He wears a fake moustache to remind Vi of her husband, recently killed in yet another neo-colonial Empire action, elsewhere on the corporatized planet. Everyone is furiously angry here, all the time–while Strap, a liar and fool, hangs on for dear life.
Aside from the noble figure of Talgarow’s native queen and de Lackner’s struggling humanitarian, we have an assortment of murderers and idiots, marooned in the jungle, trying to assert feeble but dangerous Western patriarchy and fear. Hmmm….that sounds familiar…
We applaud the high comedy and the satire—though it’s hard to harmonize the intensity and anger of their words with the seriousness of their debates about women and negotiation. When Brittany turns up again, furiously aligned with the rebels now, the stage is set for comically corrupt corporate conflicts that may save the island from extortion and destruction.
But maybe Milton’s political satire of corporate colonialism is too serious and heavy a weight for such a comic vessel? All these outsized egos are leading, helter skelter, to spreading world chaos, that a simple corporate comedy can not contain.
“Hearts of Palm” by Patricia Milton plays at Central Works in the Berkeley City Club, through Sunday, August 21, 2016. For info. centralworks.org
Directed by Gary Graves. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Lights: Gary Graves. Sound: Gregory Scharpen. Properties: Debbie Shelley. Production/Stage Manager: Vanessa Ramos.
Vi: Frieda de Lackner. Strap: John Patrick Moore. Brittany: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart. Ni-Bethu: Michelle Talgarow. Helen: Jan Zvaifler.