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Hearts of Palm

Given the dearth of politically and economically relevant theatre in the U.S., it's always a welcome sign to see a company take a chance on a playwright willing to explore the mindset of those systematically waging war and destroying the planet. The danger in such through lines, though, is the potential for characters who are straw man arguments for the points-of-view that the writer chooses to represent.

Arlene Rapal as Brittany, Marijke Jones as Ni-Bethu, Kevin Holwerda Hommes as Strap, and Sara Woodyard as Vi
Arlene Rapal as Brittany,
Marijke Jones as Ni-Bethu,
Kevin Holwerda Hommes as Strap,
and Sara Woodyard as Vi
Photo: Brian Miller
So, before we begin our explication of what playwright Patricia Milton calls a "satire on corporate colonialism," it's worth noting a characteristic that made George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Miller so successful at eviscerating the same power structure: While these two master playwrights went about the business of writing in very different ways, their results come off as natural expressions and actions based on each character's essence and motivation.

One of the hot topics over the past decade or so is palm oil, its effects on the indigenous populations and eco-systems where it is produced, and the demand for its use in various commercial products, including food (38 percent of the world's total vegetable oil supply) and fuel (biofuels).

As the lights come up on this story, Brittany (Arlene Rapal) enters the local office of Empire Holdings, a great room of an 1880ís plantation house in Marititu, a Southeast Asian island country. She removes a disposable white filter breathing mask used to counter the effects of the smoke from the burning jungle, which is being cleared to expand the planting and production of oil palms. She is preparing to negotiate with Ni-Bethu (Marijke Jones), who represents the indigenous population, for a large tract of land.

Lori Hansen as Helen and Sara Woodyard as Vi
Lori Hansen as Helen
and Sara Woodyard as Vi
Photo: Brian Miller
Vi (Sara Woodyard) enters, apparently to replace Brittany as the chief negotiator, in a PR move by the corporation, to wear a more eco-friendly face. Later, Strap (Kevin Holwerda Homes), a mid-level executive, arrives with the intent of replacing Vi, while hoping to continue their affair, and reinstate the old strategy of hardball with the natives. With him is Helen (Lori Hansen), an ex-Marine who runs the corporation's private mercenary force.

If one had not read the program guide and did not know that the playwright sees this work as a satire, it's likely that it would be taken as a melodrama, on the basis of certain sections of the performance, which involve the actors rolling their eyes and mugging for the audience, while the dialogue vascillates between superficial business discussions, straw man arguments for various political agendas, and idealism that one would not hear in a corporation which makes a habit of displacing and subjugating native populations. However, based on other sections of the performance, most notably the personal exchanges between Vi and Strap, a realistic style indicates that perhaps this is a drama.

Amongst all of this banter, there simply aren't enough biting lines for satirical effect. Perhaps such dialogue might have worked if it had been staged in a Brechtian manner, accompanied by masks, so that the characters represented archtypes, with their motivations and thoughts shared only with the audience; but as it stands, the net effect is, at best, a progressive fairy tale, rather than a true picture of corporate imperialism.

We wish the script were more cohesive, because new play development in American theatre, in general, lacks any insight into the causes of foreign and domestic terrorism on the part of the U.S. government. Every current war being conducted by the U.S. is in violation of the Geneva Accords and the U.S. position taken at the Nuremberg trials, and the present rampant assault on the American people in terms of the social safety net and basic human rights is in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The root causes behind this conduct need to be explored. How did Giraudoux, Anouilh, and Sartre handle the Nazi occupation of France?

Theatre Esprit Asia's presentation of Hearts of Palm runs through October 29th. For tickets: http://teatheatre.org, or call 720-492-9479.

Bob Bows



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