Following on its production of uplifting story of the development of a political and social conscience told in “Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey,” Ashland Contemporary Theatre (ACT) takes a sharp turn and dives into an altogether darker topic, the plotting of a political assassination for undefined yet surely nefarious reasons, as told in "“Men of Tortuga."
“This is the right play now,” Sam Osherof, who directs, told ACT Artistic Director Jeannine Grizzard when he gave her a copy of the Jason Wells' play, which starts a four-performance run Saturday, April 15.
After reading the dark comedy that debuted at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago a decade ago, Grizzard agreed, and set about assembling, in her words, “one of the finest male casts in the theater’s long history.”
Shadowy businessmen played by Don Matthews, David Dials and Josh Gross form a cabal determined to assassinate a despised political leader on the day during an important meeting. Helping their efforts is a hired gun, Taggart, played by John Lambie, who guides the plotters towards the right weapon for the job. But as complications arise, that weapon becomes ever larger and the certainty of collateral damage increases.
Dials plays Maxwell, the plotters' esteemed elder, who volunteers to sacrifice himself to ensure success. Then Maxwell meets Fletcher, played by Reece Bredl, a young idealist with a "compromise proposal" designed to resolve all conflicts. Maxwell regards the compromise as hopeless, but he develops a liking for Fletcher — a distressing fact when Maxwell learns that, if the conspiracy proceeds, young Fletcher will be among the dead. Things get complicated when Maxwell changes the game, causing suspicion, threats and infighting as Fletcher’s life hangs in the balance.
“So much of the play’s humor is ironic,” Grizzard says, “the more desperate and serious the characters’ plans become, the more we laugh. The writing is tight, thrilling and packs a punch as big as their weapon."
“Men of Tortuga” is presented as a staged reading. “Our team has been at it for a month," Grizzard says, "and there's plenty of excitement in rehearsals. Once they read this script, every actor we asked said 'yes.'”
A curious feature about Wells’s play is that he never lets the audience dwell on what the conflict is about — it's never explained just what the exact careers the businessmen have, who that political leader is, precisely what he would do to their finances if he’s not killed, or even what country they are in. All that's known is that they believe they will be ruined and are willing to do anything to prevent it. Wells leads the audience deep into the self-righteous justifications for modern corruption.
Director Osheroff is an Equity actor and former artistic director who is new to the Rogue Valley, but recently appeared in Ashland New Plays Festival’s reading of “Edward III.”
Four performances are scheduled, starting at 8 p.m. Saturdays, April 15 and 22; and at 2 p.m. Sundays, April 16 and 23; all at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. Tickets ($15) are available at Paddington Station, Grocery Outlet and online at www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org. For more information, call 541-646-2971.