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Review: Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s ‘The Agitators’

Mat Smart’s play delivers fiery clashes between two titans—but the writing lets one of them down

Allen Gilmore as Frederick Douglass and Patty Gallagher as Susan B. Anthony in ‘The Agitators.’ PHOTO: SANTA CRUZ SHAKESPEARE

As The Agitators opens, we meet a figure in a grey frock coat carrying a violin, an arresting image against a marigold yellow set. It is the magnificent Allen Gilmore, who for the next two-and-a-half hours will open up the towering figure of Frederick Douglass for us to consider. Gilmore’s companion in this dramatized history lesson is the resourceful Patty Gallagher, playing iconic suffragist Susan B. Anthony.

The issue, of course, is the fight for voting rights, and Mat Smart’s play partly makes its case. There’s much to enjoy, not least of which are the conversations based upon letters of these two American activists. We learn details of their lives, about Anthony’s Quaker roots and choice of mission over marriage—“As soon as a woman marries, she dissolves into her husband,” she says—and about Douglass’ nostalgia for a mother he barely knew.

The irresistible Gilmore is given rich lines pouring out Douglass’ affection for his wife and family. The Agitators provided a crisp afternoon of theater to which opening week’s audience responded with a resounding ovation. Clever staging that moves us swiftly through time, the distinctive costumes by B. Modern and direction by Paul Mullins help give substance to the material’s potential. Yet we long for more character development from Smart’s material.

Thanks to the remarkable chemistry between these two actors, the play unfolds with ease. Gallagher meets the great man, and the parallels between her cause and his emerge. The two friends, our playwright insists, are bound together by their astonishing energy, a seemingly common cause for equal voting rights, and their personal simpatico.

Especially charming are scenes in which the political declamations they fire at each other are set amidst simple, everyday activities. The two watch a ballgame together, reacting to off-stage strikes and balls, while talking political strategy. There are a few other moments that capture the sense that these are not only historical legends, but flesh and blood people watching their lives rush by.

The past is only important as it is useful to the present and the future, believes Douglass, thundering that “slavery is what stole the first 20 years of my life.” Inevitable barriers appear to threaten their friendship, as when he uses his influence to get the vote for Black men first. Only afterward will he agree to add his weight to the women’s vote. Anthony is outraged, and Gallagher’s finest moments in The Agitators come when she lays on her considerable skill in striking back at her trusted ally. We not only believe her rage, but the women cheering her in the audience last week obviously shared it.

However, Gilmore’s part is so much better written that his Douglass, a towering figure who was internationally famous in his lifetime, emerges more fully as a charismatic, multi-dimensional, and highly sympathetic figure. With his delicate bodily nuances, and his booming torrents of reproach, Gilmore fills the stage with an authentic individual. Would that Gallagher’s role (or perhaps the real Susan B. Anthony) had offered a deeper glimpse of the woman herself. Perhaps the documents from which playwright Smart worked failed to yield more insight. Yet since this is a work of fiction, I can’t help but imagine the missed opportunities in developing our affection for this character. Gallagher uses her full arsenal of stagecraft, but is hampered by the writing. Many speeches are numbingly didactic, preaching to the converted to the point that it was hard to tell where a play ended and a press conference began.

Still, there is plenty of lively and highly enjoyable debate about the compromises needed to move a passionate cause up through the labyrinths of politics into the law of the land. I learned a lot from this vivacious production that illuminates 45 years in the lives of two political legends. I also learned that I would gladly listen to Allen Gilmore recite the alphabet.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s production of ‘The Agitators,’ starring Allen Gilmore and Patty Gallagher; directed by Melissa Rain Anderson; directed by Paul Mullins; written by Mat Smart. Runs through August 29 at the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz. Go to santacruzshakespeare.org for a complete calendar of performances, and for tickets.

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