“Of Government” Is Less — and More — than it seems

Son of Semele not only creates consistently high-quality theatre, they are a scrappy bunch. They tackle difficult topics, and plays that are challenging to produce. And they keep coming up winners.

With the current Of Government,  they’ve done it again. Alexander Borinsky’s piece looks slight — simple pieces of story very loosely tacked together. (The first scene change, for example, whisks us from a mermaid kingdom to a small town in Montana.) And the SoS gang handles it all with a light, swift touch.

​Brenda Varda, Hazel Lozano, Olivia J. Fox, K Butterfly Smith, Anneliese Euler, Lauren Flans, Melina Bielefelt, Christine Avila, and Jessica Salans.

But what’s in play here is, like the sea, deeper than it looks. Ariel the Mermaid Princess may start as an amusing  parody, yet she leads us into a voyage as deeply serious (and as picaresque) as Voltaire’s Candide. Like the French philosopher, Borinsky is worried about human nature: “Can we govern ourselves?” he asks, “and if so, how?”

Nobody asks this question outright, of course. When Ariel leaves to seek healing for the world, the focus is on her father’s fears for her — not his inability to improve his collapsing kingdom. When a wise and beloved  teacher’s school dwindles, no one can find a way to keep it from closing. It’s rare that a world, or a corner of it, holds up. Instead we get unwed motherhood, ruinous medical costs, being stalked by a control freak — not such stuff as rom-coms are made on.

You may get pretty far along, as I did, before noticing that all the characters and actors are women. You may also be so busy following the stitched-together stories that you don’t note familiar patriarchal systems failing, again and again, and even endangering the one human enterprise that does succeed — the quiet, steady “emotional work” that men leave mostly to women.

But by the end, what has been unobtrusively woven is a sense of community (including the audience, as an easygoing piano player keeps asking us what things we have in common, what songs we know). The stories’ conflicts aren’t neatly resolved, and the issues underlying them certainly don’t get analyzed or fixed. And yet we feel fairly safe, almost able to hope. (One character even dares to run for local office.)

What emerges from this journey — which is often intense, always engaging — is no plan or system by which we can govern ourselves. Instead, we become aware of a resource we almost forgot we had.

The ensemble gives this deceptively simple piece a poised, lively presence, letting its depths and complexities emerge quietly. And they employ immense skill and energy making it seem so relaxed. Their work calls to mind a circle of Shaker women, creating masterpiece quilts while singing “‘Tis a Gift To Be Simple.”

It’s hard to single out anyone in this group, who listen and respond to each other so fluidly. Jessica Salans does accomplish a couple of remarkable transformations, Christine Avila exudes a deep calm that holds her world together, and Suzanne Scott’s costumes are a delight. But everyone feels caught up in the story, yet comfortable telling it even when it has harsh edges — and so we are, too.

It would be very healthy for our beleaguered country to have Of Government performed widely and often. We are fortunate that Son of Semele is offering its West Coast premiere here.
Of Government, by Alexander Borinsky, directed by Kate Motzenbacker.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., LA 90004.

Tuesdays at 7:00,
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
through April 1.

Tickets: <www.sonofsemele.org> or (213) 351-3507.