Theatre

Early Harvest: ‘A Tale of Autumn’ world premiere by Crowded Fire

A Tale of Autumn banner

“ ‘Free competition enforced by law’ is a grotesque contradiction in terms.”
– Ayn Rand, “Antitrust: The Rule of Unreason,” The Objectivist Newsletter, Feb. 1962

I’ve always hated the term “noble dictatorship”. Don’t let the above quote fool you – I hate it as much as I hate the term “sympathetic Objectivist” (or any Objectivist, for that matter). Both are blatant oxymorons that are less satirical turns-of-phrase so much as fundamental misunderstanding of both the words’ meanings and human nature. There is no nobility in dictatorship because the latter-half of that term requires the subjugation of – and imposition of your will upon – a free-thinking person. Oh sure, you may think you’re doing this for their benefit (be it environmental, medical, educational, or other), but a “my way or the highway” approach means you think only of “they” as a commodity, not a person. There’s a reason they say “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” and that road has been trod upon by folks named Caesar and Castro, to name but a few.

But what the author of the above quote failed to realize in her stubborn myopia is that the reason laws and government exist in the first place is because no one person exists alone in this world. She encouraged everyone to live for oneself and oneself only. The problem with that is that the world was not made for any one person. Acknowledging the existence of others and helping those in need is not the representation of a socialist ideal or a sign of weakness, it’s an acknowledgment of your fellow human beings. And as much as we’d love to believe that everyone gets their own fair shot at success, that isn’t factually true. There are a lot of people who became successful through underhanded means and even more people who suffer because they don’t have the means to provide for themselves or those they love – some of them never did and probably never will. Ensuring those rights is

So, what’s the middle ground? Other countries and eras of history have been shown to thrive with just a little reshuffling of resources; can’t we do so now? Yes, we can, but it would require making changes with which not everyone is comfortable. A Tale of Autumn is about trying to strike a balance between commercial interest and human necessity; between looking out for oneself and pandering to the masses; between cut-throat leadership and staying the course. It doesn’t fully succeed in its examination of these themes, but it’s briefly fascinating in its ponderance.

A Tale of Autumn set

Set by Adeline Smith. Photo by Me.

FarmCo is in a state of flux. The recent death of its beloved founder and CEO – addressed only as “Liv” – has left a power vacuum in the company’s top spot. Vying for that seat are San, who believes that a commercial monopoly will better provide for citizens than the government, and Dave, who wants a monopoly for the benefit of the company (and himself), not citizens. Thus begins a series of behind-the-scenes machinations in which the two attempt to stop the other from filling the shoes of deified Liv.

Outside of the FarmCo’s sleek, cozy walls lies Farmland Dist. 9, home of Gesalm, the last independent farm-owner in the land. When FarmCo rep Rena shows up to offer Gesalm a handsome buyout, the latter offers her young guest a literal and figurative taste of what real “all-natural” farming is like.

Though they may not know it, all of the above characters’ lives will soon be permanently intertwined. Before all is said and done, lines will be crossed, beliefs will be challenged, and no one will look at the world the same way again.

It’s been three months since I last saw a Christopher Chen play. So far, that show remains the single best production I’ve seen all year. It took a complicated issue – racism, both overt and subtle – and decided not to simplify it or pander to audience. Rather, the show had its quartet of characters do what few people in the real world actually do about racism: talk about it like adults.

A Tale of Autumn has a lot to say about a lot of things (“organic” food, free enterprise, the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few), but Chen’s script needed a bit more pruning so as to better illustrate which ones have priority in this story. As such, certain topics that could have used more clarity get tossed by the wayside. For instance, we learn early on that Liv wasn’t just the Steve Jobs of farming, she was also the L. Ron Hubbard, preaching life philosophy known only as “The Way”. We never learn the specifics of The Way, and that’s probably by design, as each character seems to interpret it differently. But it’s given a great deal of importance early on, only to be forgotten soon after. When it’s mentioned again in the second act, one thinks “Oh yeah, that’s that thing they mentioned earlier.”

And as much as I love stories about moral gray areas, not all the characters of this piece are fleshed out enough to make their compromises stick. On the one hand, you have Mariana (delightfully played by Mia Tagano), a new mother whose motivations and own lack of ambition are crystal clear. On the other hand, you have Dave (Lawrence Radecker), a man just as moustache-twirlingly wicked as San (Nora el Samahy), his competition in succeeding Liv. Yet, after all of the horrible things we see Dave do – including the savage beating of chemist Xavier (Christopher White) – we’re expected to sympathize with him – nay, like him – when we later see him smoking weed with lover Gil (Shoresh Alaudini), former FarmCo. rep Rena (María Candelaria) and her partner Yul (Skyler Cooper).

Speaking of Rena, I wonder if early drafts were less of an ensemble, but had Rena in the center? As the closest thing to an audience surrogate, her character arc resonates the most – thanks in no short part to the empathetic performance of Candelaria. Still, it makes one wonder how one could go from corporate rep to investigative journalist in such a short amount of time, especially in this not-too-distant future setting. It’s one of the many details Chen could have shaded in more.

But make no mistake: there are a several things that work about show. Chen still has a wonderful ear for dialogue that makes it easy to see these characters as, y’know, people. Some great exchanges include Mariana verbally dissecting Rena’s newly-found activism, the way every speaks of their plans in “hypothetical” terms, or even the way Dave stops beating Xavier long enough to shout “I’m trying to be organic!” But my favorite exchange would have to be when Rena tells her life story to Gesalm (one of two roles played by Michele Apriña Leavy). Rena apologizes for rambling on to someone as learned as Gesalm. “Don’t do that,” Gesalm replies. “[Don’t] mock your problems – they’re legitimate.” It’s the little things that have the most power.

And a lot of this play’s power can be seen, thanks to the careful direction of Crowded Fire Artistic Director Mina Morita. She wisely puts emphasis on tiny character-building moments that resonate over the exposition. The best scene of the entire show involves the budding romance between Rena and Yul. The chemistry between the two is palpable, but never more so than in the scene in which the fully clothed couple purposefully make as little physical contact as possible, so as make the make the moment last. It’s masterful example of presenting eroticism without relying on nudity or sex.

Morita also seems to enjoy the stark contrasts of the show. As shown by Miriam Lewis’s Logan’s Run-esque costumes and Theodore Hulsker’s projections (which thankfully identify the characters for us), we immediately know that this takes place in the future. Yet Adeline Smith’s set suggests what would happen if tea parties and corporate meetings took place atop Stonehenge. Add to that Devon LaBelle’s wood and glass props and Morita and her team have a setting that’s visually timeless, even when the text gets specific (there’s a brief mention of a Lawrence of Arabia remake with Miley Cyrus).

At a time when our country is being presided over by a failed businessman with open contempt for both his constituency and the natural environment, a story like Chen’s is vital. In fact, it may be even more so when one considers all the misinformation about food science. But although the author’s heart is in the right place, his head has a little trouble holding focus. A Tale of Autumn is a script that has the potential to make a great statement, but it could benefit from a bit more workshopping. Or, in keeping with the story’s theme: the seeds are all there, but it isn’t quite ripe yet.

GRADE: B-

A Tale of Autumn is scheduled to run until the 7th of October at the Potrero Stage in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with one 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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