Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston Through November 13
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
In this year when what surely can be called the worst presidential campaign in history is taking place, it would not surprise me if you would take a pass on seeing a play about a politician. I could hardly blame you, but in the case of Kenneth Lin’s Warrior Class now playing at the Lyric Stage Company in Boston you would be making a big mistake.
Yes, Warrior Class is about a politician. It is also about manipulation, extortion, dirty deal making, political fundraising, selling out principles, and much more. That’s right, all the things we hate about politics. It is also about much more than that.
Michael Tow plays Julius Weishan Lee, an idealistic young Chinese American New York State Assemblyman who is looking to move up and run for Congress. He enlists the aid of political operative Nathan Berkshire who is portrayed by Steven Barkhimer who is reminiscent of the real life consultant Bob Beckel. Lee is a sincere young man who wants to run and serve based on his beliefs. Perhaps he is naive, I like to believe otherwise, to think he can make it without selling out, but he wants to take that route. However, a problem arises.
In the course of preparing for the race it is revealed, not publicly, that Lee has a skeleton in his closet in the form of Holly Lillian Eames, played by Jessica Webb. This poses a potentially serious problem for the idealistic Lee who has a wonderful resume that includes serving in Afghanistan and working for Teach For America. He is coming off giving an impressive speech at the Republican Convention and is seen as a rising star on the national scene.
Holly and Nathan meet to try to work out a deal to keep things quiet. Yes, Holly, who claims to be a victim is also using the situation to blackmail Lee. It all seems like a pretty basic plot about a politician with something in his past to hide and his willingness to deal to make things go away. Something any of us over the age of two have seen in our lifetimes more often than we like.
The difference with Warrior Class is that it is much more than a sordid political story. Playwright Kenneth Lin digs deep into all of the characters. This is a moving and emotional work. It is like watching a game of chess as all involved maneuver to either gain from, suppress, or both from the incidents that occurred twenty years earlier. It turns out one of them is the chess master. During the play, which becomes quite intense, we are faced with asking ourselves questions. Can people change? Is it okay for a victim to become a perpetrator? Is it permissible for a man to use lies and manipulation in order to help a family member? Could any of us be one of the characters? Where is the line that should not be crossed? It is easy to walk away from this play feeling cynical, but I found much more to take away from this fine play.
Actors Michael Tow, Steven Barkhimer, and Jessica Webb are superb in their roles.
There was never a moment when my eyes left the stage,especially during the scene where Julius and Holly meet to discuss working things out. At that point emotions run very high. It is a pleasure to watch three very talented actors taking to the stage and performing seamlessly. It is performances such as this that remind me of why I am so drawn to the theatre. Dawn M. Simmons fine direction leaves enough ambiguity so when you depart the theater you will be thinking a lot about what you just saw and asking yourself many questions.
In a talkback after the performance, the question was asked if the role of Julius Weishan Lee was written specifically for a Chinese character. The answer was yes it was, but Michael Tow pointed out how different it was from so many roles he has played where he was cast because of his ancestry. He told us, while the script called for a Chinese actor, as the name implies, it could have been played by someone from any background. This freed him from feeling typecast. I agree with Mr. Tow. While the heritage of the leading character was a part of the play, it was not a play about a Chinese politician. Refreshingly, it is a play about a politician who happens to be Chinese.
While we are so focused, or perhaps, with good reason not, on the national political scene, this play will make you think more about local politics; especially, here in Massachusetts where corruption is a part of the culture.
I highly recommend you head down to the Lyric Stage and see this play. You will not be disappointed.
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