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Long before today's elephants and the donkeys came the dinosaurs. You know: Brontosauruses, Pterodactyls, and Americans who ran for Congress — or worked on Congressional staffs — as an act of public service rather than a calculated long-term career move.
"Kings," Sarah Burgess' engagingly unsavory behind-the-scenes D.C. drama now being staged by Berkeley's Shotgun Players, is a sort of Capitol Hill "Jurassic Park." Its unlikely protagonist, Sidney Millsap (Sam Jackson, warm and self-assured throughout), is a creature seemingly resuscitated from extinction, an idealistic, ethically upstanding freshman Representative. An African-American, Gold Star military widow and single mother, Millsap hasn't turned away from today's state of government affairs in disgust, but decided to take it on by speaking truth to power.
Burgess' script is rich in researched details, and the show's purest pleasures are almost documentary. By writing Millsap as a trained accountant with her sights set on fighting income tax inequality, she's able to weave in a remarkably lucid explanation and defense of the Carried Interest Fairness Act. Jackson, to her credit, imbues potentially didactic dialogue with a sense of deeply felt moral righteousness that makes the economics lesson go down easily, and dramatically.
Similarly, Millsap's heated conversations with lobbyists Lauren (Sarah Mitchell) and Kate (Elissa Beth Stebbins) allow Burgess to entertainingly educate audiences on fascinating if disheartening bits of Beltway nitty-gritty: the legal basis for donors treating politicians to cocktails and hors d'oeuvres rather than dinners, the enormous amount of time members of Congress spend on fundraising while their lobbyist-influenced staffs do much of the actual work of government, the disingenuous legislative strategy of "broadening a bill to death." The sinister strategy behind Kate's lobbying efforts for a national podiatry association is appalling and ingenious.
Burgess also does a terrific job at conveying the banal, repetitive, kowtowing rituals of the grin-and-grip political schmooze circuit. There's a twisted tingle of delight in watching John McDowell (Don Wood), the folksy seasoned Senator whose seat Millsap challenges, suffer through his annual fundraising weekend at Disney World. "They don't allow apex predators at the character breakfast," quips Lauren.
McDowell, thanks to a combination of Burgess' writing, Joanie McBrien's direction and Wood's sterling performance, is the show's most three-dimensional figure, finely grained and steering altogether clear of caricature. An avuncular, untrustworthy villain at first glance, he gradually reveals a complex blend of empathy, pragmatism and sensible self-defensiveness. Mitchell, whose twitchy facial expressions suggest a soul-deep allergy to her own behavior, and Stebbins, who seems wrapped in a gauze of despair, successfully flesh out the slightly underwritten lobbyists.
After a real-world tour of a sausage factory, participants would unlikely have much appetite for a meal. But on stage in "Kings," where the wurst observed is Washington's worst, having all the gristly ingredients pointed out makes one hungry for a narrative resolution. Preferably a hopeful one. As riveting as her play is from scene-to-scene, Burgess, like many Americans these days, can't seem to imagine an ending that isn't stuck in the status quo. The show concludes with Millsap morally uncompromised. And the system entirely unchanged. Dinosaur, meet tar pit.
Kings, through June 16. Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: ($7-$43): (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org